No, working out is not a substitute for going to therapy

No, working out is not a substitute for going to therapy

I I was recently talking to a fitness obsessed friend about how much therapy has helped me. While I wasn’t preaching the gospel of cognitive behavioral therapy to try and persuade someone to seek it out themselves if they don’t want to, there’s no denying it has transformed my mental health for the better.

I don’t go to therapy because I work out so much, she replied. She took me completely off guard.

Sure, working out is good for your mental health, science and research clearly state that. Exercise releases neurotransmitters, especially feel-good endorphins, which increase the sensation of pleasure and decrease the sensation of pain. It also increases dopamine, which also increases pleasure and feelings of motivation and can help ease feelings of depression.

Indeed, a meta-analysis published in 2016 found that exercise had a large and significant antidepressant effect in people with depression, including major depressive disorder. Another review posted in Advances in experimental medicine and biology found that exercise has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety symptoms thanks to a combination of biological and psychological factors. Exercise is also a powerful stress reliever. A study published in Frontiers in psychology found that healthy adults who exercised regularly were better able to manage acute stressors and develop emotional resilience.

I’m sure that’s where my friend came from, who sees her exercise classes as an opportunity to relieve stress and get into a positive mental space. I know she didn’t mean to be disabling or offensive, and I don’t think she even realized what she was saying. But she really got me thinking about how dismissive some people can still be of therapy and how many confuse the benefits of physical activity with the work done in therapy.

While I’ve been a mental health advocate in the 12+ years I’ve been a writer, I’ve personally only been in therapy for two years. Within that time. I’ve learned positive coping mechanisms, how to overcome the guilt and shame of my late diagnosis of ADHD, what to do when I’m plagued by intrusive scary thoughts, and unpack some unresolved feelings I’ve clung to for years, just to name a few positive. Honestly, therapy has completely changed my life.

To be clear, I am also very physically active. I’ve been working out consistently at the gym since I was 14 and in a past life I was a full-time fitness editor. I lift weights about four days a week and do cardio two or three other days a week. And I’m diligent about getting my 8,000-10,000 steps a day.

I view exercise as not only something I need to do as an adult to look after my physical health, but also a tool in my arsenal to look after my mental well-being. As someone prone to depression and anxiety, I find that regular physical activity helps balance my mood and ease some of that anxiety.

All of this is to say that exercise is beneficial to my mental health, but it’s by no means a substitute for therapy.

They really are two different things, explains Laurie Singer, a licensed therapist and board-certified behavior analyst. Exercise is a great way to relieve stress, and it can also put you on the right track for using the strategies you’ve been using in therapy. But it is different from therapy.

Singer says she always recommends physical activity as part of a treatment plan for her clients. He depends on their abilities and how long they have to exercise, but he says he generally encourages them to exercise at least four times a week.

[Exercise] it relieves that tension, that stress, she says. Increase your physical and mental energy. Improve your well-being all from those endorphins. Is not it fantastic?

The best part is, you don’t have to pay for expensive exercise classes or use fancy equipment to get those benefits. Lace up a pair of walking shoes and go for a brisk walk – anything that gets your body moving and gets your heart rate up will be beneficial.

However, physical activity is not therapy. Think about it: While you may feel better mentally after a workout, Singer points out that you may experience intrusive thoughts during your workout, or you may ruminate about worst-case scenarios that may keep coming back if you don’t address them head-on. A therapist can offer an outside perspective and tools to help you deal with distressing situations. For example, Singer says she often helps patients manage their anxiety, particularly when it comes to catastrophizing or dealing with the dozen what-ifs we all experience. She can also offer solutions to miscommunication people might be experiencing in their relationships, things you won’t get from a HIIT class.

Confusing regular exercise with clinical mental health treatment may simply boil down to misconceptions about therapy. While it has become more acceptable to talk about therapy in recent years, there is still so much that is misunderstood. For example, therapy isn’t just lying on a couch in a psychologist’s office and crying about your childhood (although, no shade to people who use their therapy sessions like that!). There are a variety of therapy modalities that therapists use, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, just to name a few.

And while I’ve been exercising regularly for 20 years, it wasn’t until I started seeing my therapist that I noticed a dramatic change in my mental health. Running gave me energy, but it didn’t help me deal with guilt and shame. Weight lifting helped relieve stress, but it didn’t help me learn to be a better communicator. And while I certainly feel better mentally after a tough spin class, it doesn’t erase my depression, anxiety, or intrusive thoughts.

Singer says that along with therapy and medications when prescribed to people, taking care of one’s mental health also requires other lifestyle factors such as eating well, getting enough sleep, not drinking too much alcohol and yes, exercising. As Sepideh Saremi, LCSW, a running therapist and founder of Run Walk Talk told Well+Good in 2020, it’s not nice to rely too much on one tool.

This is just the strategy I believe in. I know my mental health requires a diligent all-round approach. But that doesn’t stop people from making offhanded comments.

If someone says, well, I don’t need to go to therapy because I exercise Singer suggests, I’d say, that’s great that exercise is helping you, it’s creating those endorphins if you ever need them. [therapy]let me know, i have a great therapist.

#working #substitute #therapy

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