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On running, fitness and the narrative of sadness

on why do we associate “sadness” with certain feelings

I have been running consecutively for seven days now. There’s a whole lot of reasons why I am doing it — which I will probably document in an essay later — but mainly I got tired of feeling tired, and I got to a point when I was willing to try anything to jumpstart my self, even if it means doing something I dislike. Additionally, I moved a couple of months ago, which meant that I lost access to a pool, and I needed to find another convenient exercise to keep my sanity. I really dislike tying exercise to my sanity, but I have to consider the overwhelming evidence that shows the positive correlation, including my observed mental states when I am exercising regularly.

People frequently suggest “exercise more” when I tell them about my chronic depression and other health issues. I want to state here that I think usually that’s not helpful, even though I actually agree with it after my own lived experience. That is because when a person is feeling depressed, and the person is vulnerably sharing that with you, they are usually feeling shitty enough about themselves and the last thing they typically need is the insinuation that they have not tried to do everything to help themselves. “Why are you always not doing enough”, is probably what they are hearing. Depending on the severity of their health issues, sometimes exercise can make them physically worse.

What I have learnt personally is that one has to get to a healthy enough state to even attempt an exercise routine. Else, it will add to the feelings of self-defeat and guilt when it is not successful. One of the biggest symptoms of depression is the dysfunction of the dopamine reward system, so people who are depressed (or burnt out, etc) cannot motivate themselves. It is not that they are lazy. Their brains are not functioning.

So I think I got to a point where I felt well enough to attempt yet another try at running. I have tried several times in the past before but it was never sustainable, or it caused my chronic migraines to become worse. I guess what made the difference this time was that I have become a lot more compassionate with myself, and I have developed enough cognitive skills to cope (more on that later). So when I ran badly — I couldn’t even run 100m without feeling I was about to die — I stopped making myself feel bad about it and I stopped forcing my body to try. I just stop. Walk. Run again when I feel better. My theory is this has caused my body to overtax itself less, so it doesn’t trigger my migraines and other issues, yet.

As an unintended side effect, I noticed myself developing the capacity to discern between my feelings and the “objective” (of true objectivity is even possible) truth. I am not sure if this is an outcome of running or it is simply a development of all the work I have been putting in. I have found myself wondering why do I equate the physical feeling of sadness as an objective truth of sadness? Why do I feel bad when I am “sad”? Why do we allow physical sensations to sway us so much?

I think about my feelings of “sadness”. It is this uncomfortable deep hollow sinking feeling, sometimes tinged with a sharp pain in my chest. It is the feeling that makes me feel I will never appreciate the vibrant beauty of colours again. I don’t think I am capable of describing my feelings of sadness adequately, but I realised they are very much physical sensations, strong physical sensations, and yet they don’t cause us any immediate harm (another story if it is chronic, chronic emotional stress causes a ton of physical damage which belongs to another essay). Yet these sensations drive so much of the way I live.

This past week, I noticed those familiar feelings of sadness arising in me. Sometimes there’s just no apparent trigger. I just feel “sad” for no apparent reason. But I started to ask myself, is it possible to feel these sensations in an authentic manner, i.e. not repress them, but not add any negative narrative to it? Can I feel them and not keep on replaying sad memories in my head?

(I know I am describing mindfulness but for me it’s different knowing what it is intellectually and actually living the experience of it.)

I read that depressed people has a shrunken hippocampus, the part of the brain that manages memories. Researchers don’t know what memory has to do with depression, but I have a theory. I think depression is an outcome of the brain being stuck in certain timelines and/or narratives among other neurological factors (being frozen is a known symptom of PTSD actually, I’m just making the connections). For example, if we experienced some trauma, the brain keeps replaying them in our head, and somehow we lose the capacity to allow new memories because the brain is occupied being stuck in that loop. When we don’t form new memories, all we remember is our trauma. We don’t remember that life has good moments too.

So as my theory extends: that’s why I keep feeling sad for no apparent reason. My body remembers the sadness I’ve encountered and it’s stuck reliving it even if I am not consciously thinking about it. But here’s the thing, if I feel sad for no reason, I’ll most likely be inclined to start thinking about the traumatic events in my life because that’s the association my brain has made. So it’s just a continuous vicious loop. I feel sad, it makes me remember why I am sad, it reinforces the neurological pathways that keeps on re-experiencing the sensations of sadness.

This reminds me of a conclusion I’ve made a while ago. If my brain only holds negative data the expression of it will likely be negative, thus to have a wider expression of it, there needs to be conscious building and input of positive data alongside the negative ones. Notice I am not suggesting replacement, because I believe sadness/negativity has a vital role to play in life.

Going back to why I’m running — it is one of the known ways that makes our brains build new connections:

“…conversely, exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that can reverse this process, physically bolstering the brain’s infrastructure. In fact, the brain responds like muscles do, growing with use, withering with inactivity. The neurons in the brain connect to one another through “leaves” on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.”

Source: Spark by John J. Ratey, Eric Hagerman | link

As written many times here before, I think I am operating with limited data. If I still care about questioning whether life is worth living, then at the very least I can do is to work towards an outcome with the fullest spectrum of data I can possible accumulate in my lifetime.

Who will I become? Will I learn to relabel my sensations of perceived sadness? Will life start to feel different to me with this increasing awareness? Will something as simple as consistent running allow me to rewire my brain to experience life differently?

I don’t know the profound answers yet and I am not sure if I’ll ever know while I am alive. But I have found myself looking forward to my runs at 7ish am every morning. Every day I wake up feeling like my body is about to crumble, but if I let myself sit for a while, drink some coffee (I went back to drinking a cup every morning, more on that later too), I’ll start to feel like running. Health benefits aside, I am also curious: will I be able to sustain something I have disliked intensely for most of my life? If I keep on running will I get fitter? How does it feel to be fit, and what will be its impact on me?

I have never, ever, felt fit in my life. I have felt well enough before, but was never fit enough for my body to be operating at an optimum efficiency. I want to know if that is a possible outcome for someone like me, someone who has felt tired most of her life.

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