Why the phrase “Exercise is my therapy” is harmful

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Exercising to deal with anger, anxiety, sadness, and trauma isn’t the best long-term solution for mental health.

We’ve all heard — and maybe even believed — that old cliché, “exercise is my therapy.” And we understand why this sentence is so anchored in our brain.

Exercise is great for our mental health – there’s no doubt about it. Our brain produces feel-good chemicals when we exercise, according to a January 2013 study in ​brain science,So it makes sense that the gym could improve our mood, December 2011 American Psychological Association (APA) article points out.

So if that’s the case, needing a therapist during long runs and HIIT workouts can make our brains happier, especially after arguing with a loved one or doomscrolling on social media for too long.

But while it’s common to use a sweat session to deal with anger, anxiety, sadness, and trauma, it may not be the best long-term solution to combat those feelings.

In fact, sometimes using exercise as a coping mechanism prevents you from getting to the root of the problem. The mental health benefits of exercise are not a substitute for seeking professional help.

Why therapy is sometimes necessary

Many mental health professionals, such as Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, LCSW-R, CEDSbelieve that the phrase “exercise is my therapy” is harmful.

“It reinforces the stigma that needing therapy is somehow a weakness, and it pushes the therapy process aside,” she told LIVESTRONG.com.

When it comes to mental health issues, too often people are caught up in the belief that they have the ability and/or the obligation to deal with it on their own. Perhaps this is where the overuse of exercise as a tool comes into play.

“Exercise can’t be your only coping mechanism,” says Roth-Goldberg. “And that can’t be your only way to regulate your emotions, because you don’t have access to exercise all the time. Among other things, therapy can help identify issues that you need to address and find solutions. ‘other coping mechanisms.’

The key to remember: exercise is therapeutic, but it is not therapy.

“It can be therapeutic to take a bath. It can be therapeutic to talk to a friend. But that’s not the process of therapy,” says Roth-Goldberg. “Confusing things that are therapeutic with therapy is problematic.”

Therapy is different in that it takes place outside of your own head, which is beneficial in several ways.

“The idea of ​​having a safe space and validating and elaborating on your own thoughts lessens the shame,” Roth-Goldberg said. “Reducing shame is an important part of the therapeutic process because shame is often kept as a secret. So saying something out loud to someone in a safe environment is really helpful.”

It’s also helpful to have someone with an outside perspective to help you become aware of — and change — negative thoughts or behavior patterns that aren’t serving you. By telling your personal story, your therapist can help you make connections and recognize thoughts you were taught but no longer believe.

“If you could change your own patterns, you wouldn’t have them,” says Roth-Goldberg. “You can’t even necessarily identify your own distorted way of thinking without another person to bounce things off.”

When exercise becomes a problem

If you’ve been feeling very stressed lately (you’re not alone), how have you handled the situation? It’s important to check in and make sure you don’t become too dependent on your training program.

“Exercise and movement are so crucial for mental health,” Kirstin Ritchie, NP, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and running coach, tells LIVESTRONG.com. “It plays a huge role in our ability to cope with stress. It’s when it becomes obsessive that it becomes a problem.”

There’s a fine line between healthy adaptation and obsession. Ritchie says you should pay attention to what happens when you take a day off.

“If not exercising that day is really hurting your mental health or you’re unable to function and it’s creating anxiety or impacting your diet, take note,” she says. . “The inability to have a rest day or miss a sport is a major red flag.”

While you can’t really physically get addicted to the dopamine and other endorphins created by exercise, you can get addicted to the post-workout thrill. Ritchie says it’s more of a behavioral addiction, but an addiction nonetheless.

And Roth-Goldberg agrees.

“A lot of times people say things like, ‘Oh, I just need to go for a run,’ which also creates an unhealthy relationship with exercise, because we use it exclusively to regulate emotionally,” she says. “It can be addictive.”

Ritchie says to be careful when the stress-relieving activity becomes the stressor. If you feel like you’re looking for a “corrective” exercise, it might be time to seek professional help.

“In the long run, you risk overtraining,” Ritchie says. “The physical impact is big. You don’t want to train because of an injury. And pushing day in and day out can lead to even more mental health issues.”

If you’re relying too heavily on exercise, Ritchie advises starting with awareness.

“Ask yourself, ‘Why am I exercising today?’ and ‘What would happen if I didn’t exercise today?’ and if the answer is that it would be hard but maybe that’s what your body needs, then rest,” she says.

She explains that a rest day is a bit like exposure therapy.

“And if that in itself is impossible, then talking to a therapist is important. Because it’s never really about the exercise. There’s an underlying thing going on, whether it’s a need for control something in your life, or anxiety or depression — those are things you really need to address with a certified therapist,” she says.

Athletes might not be able to see the problems exercise creates in their own lives, but you might notice an addiction in a loved one or friend. Roth-Goldberg says that even if it’s hard to do, don’t be afraid to talk about it.

“We live in a wellness culture, so something that’s healthy can quickly turn unhealthy,” she says. “I think it’s always healthy to voice concerns. Speak softly. Ask questions like, ‘What do you do when you’re not exercising?’ Trying to engage them in a conversation rather than telling someone your opinion.Even if we are not heard, or if the person feels defensive, you are planting a seed.

How to find mental health resources

Both Roth-Goldberg and Ritchie understand the barriers to seeking appropriate mental health care. Access and affordability are huge issues. But because your mind and body are connected, it’s important to prioritize your mental health.

Roth-Goldberg suggests exploring employee assistance program (EAP) options as part of your job and looking for low-cost options like Open Path Collective and Inclusive therapists. Additionally, she says, many hospitals offer support groups for specific conditions and life experiences. Ritchie also suggests finding clinics at local colleges and universities.

“Treating your mind or a mental issue the same way we would treat a physical injury is really important,” Ritchie said. “I really think everyone could benefit from therapy. I mean, we all have wellness visits with our primary care physicians, so why not do the same for your mental health and well-being? be ?”

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