Jane Baxter '86, (psychology) author and psychologist, treats depression with exercise.
By Kelly Anzulavich
Q: Two out of three people who are being treated for depression still suffer from depression. What do you think about this statistic?
A: Clinically, the condition is called treatment-resistant depression. Depressed people need a push to get structure and to stay active because depression strips them of that. Feelings follow action. Take the action first and then a person feels better. If depressed clients wait until they feel motivated to do something, they’re going to be waiting a long time. As a result, much of what I do is very structured and methodical to motivate and encourage healthy choices.
Q: How do you approach depression with your clients?
A: I look at the whole person. I want to deal with the distortion in thinking that depression produces and how a person feels physically and emotionally as a result. During a typical session, the client and I talk while doing a simple workout for each major muscle group. The program is the same each time so they know what to expect. The exercise generates healthy thoughts and a positive sense of self, and the client starts to distinguish the truth from the depression-generated distortions. For example, exercise releases hormones, such as endorphins and dopamine, which can clear up thinking in the actual session.
Q: How does exercise help abate depression?
A:It works because of the positive echo effects from the workout. When muscles contract they release a chemical across the brain, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is like fertilizer for the brain. BDNF promotes stronger connections in the areas of reasoning and judgment, which promotes new positive and constructive neurological formations.
Q: Do you think that physical activity distracts the person who wants to discuss serious issues?
A: Again, feelings follow action. When people are in touch with the intensity of what is depressing or bothering them, then they can talk about it. It’s not distracting. Also, natural breaks in the workout allow clients to regroup.
Q: How does exercise compare with antidepressant medication?
A:Many tools and techniques exist to treat depression, including medication. Sometimes, people need medication, as well as talk therapy. If the goals that we set, which are individualized for each person, aren’t being reached, then I will refer that person to a psychiatrist to look at the possibility of medication. Exercise and diet, along with good emotional and mental habits, are the basic best practices of my model.
Jane Baxter ’86 is the author of Manage Your Depression Through Exercise: A Five-week Plan to a Happier, Healthier You, published in August.