This has been a long winter for Western New York. I’m used to it at this point having lived here my whole life. I have an end of March birthday and I distinctly remember my mom never trying to plan any type of birthday for me that was weather dependent, because we could be in bathing suits or snow pants.
But this year? The winter sucked a little more than usual and it dragged out quite a bit. That’s why a couple of weekends ago in early April, my friend Elissa and I decided no matter the weather we needed to get out. Our kids had cabin fever. We were ready to make them outdoor pets (kidding, kind of). I called her up and we looked at the forecast: chance of some snow flurries, cold, but sunshine.
“Lets do it!”
We decided to meet up at a local nature park that has a nice kid-friendly trail filled with little fairy houses hiding in the trees. It’s one of our favorite places to go. The scenery is absolutely stunning, and its quiet and in the woods. I put my toddler into his carrier and bundled us up and off we went. We breathed in the cold air that was so cold it hurt our chest, but it almost feel like it cleansed out all we had been breathing in cooped up at home.
The wildlife was beautiful. If you ever want to connect with nature, this is the place to go. There is marshland that was filled with animals and sunshine just peeking through the trees. You could hear little critters stirring. We saw a ton of deer just walking through and enjoying this piece of nature with us. We picked up a good pace with our walk, got our hearts going, and I was carrying a 28-pound toddler. We certainly were getting our exercise as we watched our kids run from fairy house to fairy house, marveling in their magic and wonder that is so beautiful to watch at their age.
We truly couldn’t have had a better experience or setting, but it got me thinking about a recent video I saw on a homeopathic Facebook page that seemed to be passing around the Internet. It shows a person running through a thick forest with the words: “This is an antidepressant.” It then shows below it a bottle of pills dropping to the ground saying: “This is a lifelong addiction.”
When I first saw that post, I remember being instantly turned off by it and knew that the creator of it was lacking medical knowledge and perspective. I’m used to seeing a lot of unhealthy stigmas in the way of mental health so I hadn’t thought about it much since then. But being in that moment, it all came back to me, and Elissa and I began discussing it.
Did I feel wonderful in that moment? Was I at peace? Was my brain releasing endorphins? The answer to all of those questions is a resounding “yes!” But you know what? Exercise and fresh air doesn’t replace my mental health medications. Repeat after me just so you get it through your head: “Exercise…and…fresh…air…does…not…replace…my…mental…health…medications.”
The feeling that you get during exercise is temporary, and when you are someone with a chemical imbalance that impacts the way your brain functions and your daily mood, feelings, and perception of the world around you, that is not a fix-all.
Should I exercise more? Yes. Is it beneficial to get exercise? No brainer. Is unplugging and going into nature a positive thing for anyone? Yes. Does it cure mental illnesses? No, it simply doesn’t.
Say you are someone who doesn’t have an anxiety, depression, or other mental health disorder but you’ve had an awful day at work. You are stressed and need to decompress, so you throw on your sneakers and take a jog. You finish feeling completely better and move on with your day. Exercise was likely enough to fix what you were working through. That is fantastic, but you are also likely the type of person who is going to make a medication-shaming statement like the one above.
For someone who has crippling anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, bipolar disorder or anything related, the right medication combination might make the difference of them getting out of bed that morning and showering. It is sometimes the first step towards even getting those shoes laced up and getting out with nature.
Mental health is different than daily stress, and exercise doesn’t fix all. The only thing viral posts like those serve to do is further stigmatize people like me who already feel disconnected and isolated and judged for needing these supports. It could make someone who is finally on a good medication regimen go off of it and pose a danger to themselves. It perpetuates the idea that if people with depression just tried harder they could make themselves happy. You know, just be happy. (#thatsnothowanyofthisworks).
I absolutely loved my walk in the park with my best friend and our kiddos. I wouldn’t trade that day for anything and it was much welcomed. But for the sake of self-care, you better believe I got home and took my meds that night, just like any other night.
For those battling mental illness, take care of yourself and silence that noise. You know what best for you.