We've all heard — and perhaps even believe — that old cliché, "exercise is my therapy." And it's understandable why this phrase is so ingrained in our brains.
Exercise is great for our mental health — there's no debating that. Our brains produce feel-good chemicals when we work out, according to a January 2013 review in Brain Sciences, so it makes sense that hitting the gym can boost our mood, as a December 2011 American Psychological Association (APA) article points out.
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So, if that's the case, who needs a therapist when long runs and HIIT workouts can make our brains happier, especially after an argument with a loved one or doomscrolling on social media for too long.
But while it is common practice to use a sweat session to deal with anger, anxiety, sadness and trauma, it might not be the best long-term solution to combatting these feelings.
In fact, sometimes using exercise as a coping mechanism prevents you from getting to the root of the issue. The mental health benefits exercise provides are not a substitute for seeking professional help.
Why Therapy Is Sometimes Necessary
Many mental health professionals, like Stephanie Roth-Goldberg, LCSW-R, CEDS, believe the "exercise is my therapy" phrase to be harmful.
"It reinforces the stigma that needing therapy is somehow a weakness, and it dismisses the therapeutic process," she tells LIVESTRONG.com.
When it comes to mental health struggles, too often people get caught up in the belief that they have the capacity and/or obligation to work it out on their own. That might be where overusing exercise as a tool comes into play.
"Exercise can't be your only coping mechanism," Roth-Goldberg says. "And it can't be your only way to emotionally regulate, because you don't have access to exercise all the time. Among other things, therapy can help identify problems you need to work out and find other coping mechanisms."
The key takeaway: 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 isn't the process of doing therapy," Roth-Goldberg says. "Conflating things that are therapeutic with therapy is problematic."
Therapy is different in that it happens outside your own head, which is beneficial in several ways.
"The idea of having a space that is safe and validating and getting to work out your own thoughts diminishes shame," Roth-Goldberg says. "Reducing shame is a huge part of the therapeutic process, because often shame is kept in the form of a secret. So, saying something out loud to someone in a safe environment is really helpful."
It also helps to have someone with an outside perspective help you gain awareness of — and change — negative thought or behavior patterns that aren't serving you. In telling your personal story, your therapist can help you make connections and recognize thoughts you were taught but no longer believe in.
"If you could change your own patterns, you wouldn't have them," Roth-Goldberg says. "You can't necessarily even identify your own kind of distorted way of thinking without another person to bounce things off of."
When Exercise Becomes a Problem
If you've been feeling extra stressed lately (you're not alone), how have you been handling it? It's important to check in and make sure you aren't becoming too dependent on your workout regimen.
"Exercise and movement are so crucial to 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 is a fine line between healthy coping and obsession. Ritchie says you should pay attention to what happens when you take a rest day.
"If not exercising that day really throws off your mental health or if you're unable to function and it creates anxiety or impacts your eating, take notice," she says. "The inability to have a rest day or take time away from a sport is a major red flag."
While you can't really get physically addicted to the dopamine and other endorphins created from exercising, you can get hooked on the post-workout feeling. Ritchie says it is more of a behavioral addiction — but an addiction, nonetheless.
And Roth-Goldberg agrees.
"Oftentimes, people will say things like, 'Oh, I just need to go for a run,' which then also creates an unhealthy relationship with exercise because we are using it exclusively to emotionally regulate," she says. "That can create a dependence."
Ritchie says to watch out for when the stress-relieving activity becomes the stressor. If it feels like you are looking for an exercise "fix," it might be time to seek professional help.
"In the long-term, you risk overtraining," Ritchie says. "The physical impact is great. You don't want to train through injury. And pushing day after day can lead to even more mental health struggles."
When to Seek Help
If you are depending too much on exercise, Ritchie says to start 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 might be what your body needs, then rest," she says.
She explains that a rest day is kind of like exposure therapy.
"And if that in itself is impossible, then talking to a therapist is important. Because it is never really about the exercise. There is an underlying thing going on, whether it's a need to control something in your life, or anxiety, or depression — those are some things you really need to work out with a certified therapist," she says.
Athletes might not be able to see the problems exercise is creating in their own lives, but you might notice a dependence in a loved one or friend. Roth-Goldberg says that while it's difficult to do, don't be afraid to bring it up.
"We live in a wellness culture, so something that is healthy can become unhealthy quickly," she says. "I think expressing concern is always healthy. Speak gently. Ask questions like, 'What do you do when you're not exercising?' To try to engage them in a conversation rather than telling someone your opinion. Even if we're not heard, or the person feels defensive, you are planting a seed."
How to Find Mental Health Resources
Both Roth-Goldberg and Ritchie understand the obstacles in finding proper mental health care. Both 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 through your work and looking for low-fee 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 through local colleges and universities.
"Treating your mind or a mental issue in the same way we would treat a physical injury is really important," Ritchie says. "I really think everyone could benefit from therapy. I mean, we all have wellness visits with our primary care doctors, so why not do the same for your mental health and wellbeing?"
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