Help a former athlete deal with depression.
June 12, 2006 9:05 PM   Subscribe

As a former athlete, I am having trouble coping with both the loss of my sport, and in its absence, the associated lack of euphoria. What can I do to feel better without taking anti-depressants?

For the record, as far as I can remember I have always had a case of mild to moderate depression. I have never taken prescription medication to treat it though. However, during different segments of my life, I have self-medicated in one way or another. I smoked pot habitually for about a year but quit because the lows were too low. I also tried drinking alcohol for about a year, but gained weight and felt like shit; ditched that too. Finally I started eating right and doing daily exercise. After about 6 months of training I felt amazing and started to get competitive with cycling. And for the past 3 years have been riding for about 2-3 hours per day (as a student with plenty of time).

When I was near my athletic peak, I was able to deal somewhat serendipitously with my ongoing case of depression. Incidentally, the highs that I obtained on daily 3 hour bike rides gave me enough of an endorphin cocktail to be somewhat productive in society. Outside of the sport, I felt that I had a lot of energy left over – enough to accomplish anything that I was willing to set my mind to. Now that I have actual responsibility for the first time in my life, I have had to let go of cycling, gradually. I feel dysphoric, depressed, unmotivated, easily distracted and tired most of the time. The 45 minutes in the gym does not cut it for me, no matter what sport I try. Cycling on the weekends helps to a point, but the endorphins wear off and its hard to accept not being able to go on rides that I could easily do as recently as 2 months ago.

I am interested if anyone here has experienced a similar transition. Specifically, what did you do to cope? What do you do to fill the void where [insert sport] had previously existed?

I am willing to take anti-depressants as a final measure, and in the end, accept that I might need to. But for now I would like to know if there are any natural ways to deal with depression. I exercise, eat well, and sleep enough. So, I'm looking for things along the lines of: vitamin B-12, green tea, Chinese medicine, meditation. What works for you?
posted by |n$eCur3 to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sleep less? work out late, when you get home? Get up very early and ride? I find that, for me, the effects of minor sleep deprivation are offset by exercise.
posted by milinar at 9:46 PM on June 12, 2006

Is this a question of not having the time? If so, you could consider biking to work. But even if you can't do that, I think there should almost always be room for regular exercise -- chances are it'll make you more productive during the time you are working. I don't know what your schedule is like, though, so I don't want to be judgmental.
posted by lunchbox at 9:54 PM on June 12, 2006

I apologize if I'm not answering your question(s) directly, but I cannot resist mentioning something. You do say that you've tried other sports, but have you tried swimming? While a good bike ride or jog does clear my mind and balance my mood, swimming does wonders. I think it's a combination of the solitude, being in a different element, things being relatively quiet, and, just as importantly, the fact that swimming exercises nearly every major muscle group. It's also great if you're short on time, since it can be just as exhausting to swim for an hour as it is to do another sport for two hours (at least for me).

If you're competitive or enjoy working out with other people (and are in the United States), I also recommend masters swimming. They have programs nearly everywhere and practice times that are convenient for working people.
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 10:07 PM on June 12, 2006

Response by poster: I like the idea of trying to sleep less and exercizing more, but that's not the kind of answer I "really" want to focus on. I usually just get even more cranky and unmotivated with less sleep. I certainly will try swimming in the future, but currently have no access to a pool. For what it's worth, I tried swimming in the past, and I loved it when it could be done in the ocean. I'm not a huge fan of doing laps, I normally just end up in the spa :-).
posted by |n$eCur3 at 11:00 PM on June 12, 2006

I do a lot of self-experimentation and one thing I've found in the last 4ish months is that when I'm not doing cardio exercise I feel a lot better mentally if I eat very low calorie (800 to 1500 a day, 26 yo thinnish girl), very low carb, very low fat, and lift weights 7 days a week. (I make juices out of oranges, lemons, ginger. Eat chicken breast, turkey breast, skim milk mozzarella, raw spinach, tomatoes, unsweetened peanut butter, raw almonds.)

I don't pretend to know if this is actually healthy for my body but my brain feels fantastic. The absolute very best mentally I've ever felt. This sounds all very pop psychology-y to myself even, but I actually have a hard time even holding onto death-spiral depressing thoughts anymore. I have no idea how just calming down mentally as I age plays into it as well, or that I have very little stress at all, because I'm just one person and not a well-executed science experiment.

Immediately previous to this experiment I had been eating as normal but walking about 4 to 6 miles 3-5 days a week and that was a mental boost for me, but in hindsight it doesn't even compare with the mental calm I experience lately.
posted by birdie birdington at 11:16 PM on June 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

I second the swimming advice if you can somehow find access to a pool. Barring that, you could look into interval training: repeated short bursts of peak effort may be able to take the place of your old long workouts. Also consider whether other recent changes in your life (school-work transition) may be adding to your dysphoria.
posted by footnote at 5:48 AM on June 13, 2006

If it means that much to you, make time for cycling. Bike to work, do your long ride on the way home, something.
posted by electroboy at 6:27 AM on June 13, 2006

Two words: Holy Carp. Did I write this question in my sleep somehow?

In my teens and early 20's I used to ride just as much as you describe.

Now, at 30, I have a wife, 4 kids, 2 cars, a mortgage, and my own business. (Oh by the way, 3 of those kids are triplets, just entering their 'terrible twos'.)

Riding is a wistful memory that I think about whenever I pass my bike in the garage.

I am now going to schedule at least 3 rides per week, period.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for motivating me.
posted by Wild_Eep at 7:30 AM on June 13, 2006

Part of life is having periods of ennui. You mentioned that you now have responsibility for the first time in your life. If you're used to being a free spirit, responsibility's a bummer. However, achieving goals at work can be rewarding, too. It's just not the endorphin rush of having a great ride.

The point is, if you go about your life searching for the next rush, you'll be unhappy most of the time. For some people, it's worth it because they keep doing bigger and more awesome feats, until they end up climbing Everest. Then what do you do?

You could break the cycle of always having to have the next rush, and instead work on more lasting satisfaction through achievements in your professional life.

Meditation and Yoga can help you realize that experiences that produce a rush aren't the only worthwhile experiences.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 7:31 AM on June 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Try running. Because it's a weight-bearing sport, you can get up to goal heart-rate quicker than cycling. So a 1-hour run may give you the same endorphin rush that it took 3 hours on a bike to get.

Also, what electroboy said.

Without exercise, my depression returns with a vengeance. I need all three - therapy, medication and exercise - to keep going.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:00 AM on June 13, 2006

Somewhat related question here.

You say you're willing to take medication as a last resort, but you don't mention therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to be as effective for depression as medication alone and the combination is better than either alone. The book Feeling Good is a good self-help version of CBT. I highly recommend it.

The other idea which I'm sure you've thought of is to look at what ex-pro-athletes have done. What you describe is a very common phenomenon and some have made the transition much better than others. Find some who've done well and try to do what they did.
posted by callmejay at 8:22 AM on June 13, 2006

Did you read this thread on herbal remedies for depression? Just be cautious about doing things without talking to a doctor, blahblahblah. I've seen the supplement (?) 5HTP mentioned here at least several times as way to treat depression.

I have empathy for you as my mood changed quite a bit when I stopped exercising as much (I used to swim 2-3 hours a day, six days a week and went down to nothing, then to something like doing gym stuff 3-4 times a week). I think that the passing of time has helped me a little, though that seems like a crappy suggestion to you. I did end up talking to my doctor about it though. Good luck with whatever you do.
posted by Uncle Glendinning at 8:30 AM on June 13, 2006

Seems appropriate:

"Human happiness comes not from infrequent pieces of good fortune, but from the small improvements to daily life."
-Benjamin Franklin
posted by Wild_Eep at 12:06 PM on June 13, 2006

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