The Bike as Anti-Depressant

Last week on The Paceline, Padraig and I had a long conversation about depression. If that’s a thing you want to hear more about, give it a listen. What follows is an edited excerpt from that conversation, focused on the way riding bikes can both help and hinder your ability to cope with mental health struggles.

Most people are now aware that mental health challenges are various and widespread, and the stigmas associated with getting help are fewer. As someone who has been down this road (and taken many of the exits), I hope that means we can invest our time in talking about ways to address the real problems we have.

Neutral support is a good metaphor for the various levers I use to manage my mental health. In any crisis, we are only ever as strong as our tools for solving for that crisis. Having support around you can be critical.

First I’ll just describe my depression. I have an official diagnosis of dysthymia, which is a catchall for chronic low-grade depression. I’ve had it my whole life, beginning when I was about eight years-old. I really battled with it for years and years, until just after my kids were born, when basically I became entirely overwhelmed by life and stuck in a permanent misery, which manifested itself as a kind of detached despondency coupled with rage.

Anger, I’m told, is how men in our society typically express sadness and pain.

The bike comes into play with mental health treatment because exercise generally is ameliorative. It produces some of the neurotransmitters, the chemicals, that counteract the imbalances that produce depression, anxiety and other issues. In terms of dopamine, we know that long, hard rides, what one might call suffer sessions, actually have a sustained dopamine trail that things like social media, sex, gambling, etc. don’t have.

So the bike is a real refuge when I’m not feeling well. The challenge is that when I’m in a bad spot, my motivation really takes a dive, and I want to say a few things about that dynamic, because it shares some characteristics with addiction, which is another one of my areas of reluctant expertise. 

Depression, like addiction, is a bit insidious because all the mental signals you’re getting are to retreat. Your illness doesn’t want you to tell anyone what you’re feeling, doesn’t want you to exert unnecessary energy. The system goes into shutdown. In essence, depression wants to keep you in the disease state. There is a dynamic, often referred to as a spiral, where you feel bad, so you isolate and retreat, so you feel worse and do less, so you retreat further, so you feel even worse and do even less.

It’s a progression I’ve been through more times than I can count, and all that experience has helped me develop some strategies for exiting the spiral as soon as possible.

When I’m depressed, I’ve developed a number of levers I can pull to move toward feeling better. One is the bike. It’s free. It’s easy. It’s available. I just have to remember that, even when I don’t want to, it will help. The caveat here, the one I referenced above, is that hammering isn’t usually the answer. I have to ride, but I also have to give myself the time and space to go easy. Making myself more physically tired is seldom good for depression recovery. In fact, it can be a hindrance. No one ride has ever fixed me, so trying for a full catharsis through a monumental effort doesn’t work for me. Slow and steady quite literally wins this race.

Another lever, for me, is medication. I take an SSRI, a serotonin booster basically, and that keeps my lows from going too low. Medication might help some people. Just because it works for me, doesn’t mean it’s a cure all or right for everyone. I like to think of it as just one of the levers. There’s a big stigma still with meds. I get that. I’ll just say my life goes much, much better with them than without them. I’ve tried both ways.

Talking helps me a lot, too. That might be talk therapy, which I’ve done, but more conventionally, I tell my wife and certain friends that I’m in a bad way. Getting it out of my head and into the open definitely helps, and then those people can monitor me in a way they might not normally, so that if my behavior gets too funky, there’s a safety net. The great thing about having people who love you is that sometimes, when it’s critical, they can love you. Love there is a verb, not a noun.

Those are my three main levers. There are others. Meditation. Prayer if that’s your thing. Psychedelics. I’m not trying to be encyclopedic here. I’m just saying that, at least for me, no one thing is the answer. I’d encourage anyone who is suffering to explore any option they can find, to put together a variety of tools.

I’ve felt like life is pointless. I’ve lost hope. I’ve been deep in the hole. I’ve contemplated ending my life. I know how bad it can feel. More than anything, I’d implore people who are struggling to begin trying things. Just suffering, just enduring isn’t ultimately noble. It just hurts. Get help. Find your way out.

Join the conversation
  1. mensch283 says

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m sorry you suffer, but glad you’ve found some help. As a mental health professional I can vouch for all you say. Mostly, though, I’m glad you are sharing because it helps reduce the stigma, and encourages others to get help, too.

  2. limpest.hypos-0q says

    Man, I can certainly relate to this. I’ve been accused of “punishing” myself both trail running and riding. As I navigate the current complexities of my own personal life, one, or two, or three things that are a constant relief is fresh air, running shoes, and my bikes. I guess I’d lump my skis in there too. Thanks for sharing, this is why I subscribe to TCI and listen to you and Stevil on the Revolting podcast.

  3. rampantpandacom says

    Physical activity is the most sure-fire way I have of dealing with depression. There’s something about just doing something and moving forward that helps clear the air somewhat. That said, I’ve burnt myself out doing that a couple of times too many. It’s hard to stay of fthe bike when you just know that you’ll feel so much better when you just go ride.

    I had a major surgery in January and I’m only now getting slowly back on the bike. Not going to lie, it’s been rough, but hopefully it’s getting better.

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