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15 Tips from Instructors on Managing Feelings of Depression

by | Main Blog, Mental Health

Feeling Down, Should You Rally or Rest?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), depression is one of the most common mental disorders, impacting an estimated 16.2 million American adults annually - that's nearly 7% of the US population. Although common, depression is a complicated condition that can express itself in many ways and vary widely in severity.

This article is not intended to diagnose or treat depression, and should not be used as a replacement for a doctor’s or a counselor’s professional care. Instead it serves as a reminder that we all may experience difficult times and while depression is a clinically diagnosed condition (to be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks), this article shares insights from 40+ group fitness instructors who have managed acute or chronic depression.

I’m very grateful to the instructors who shared their tips and experiences for this article; since most requested anonymity, I have omitted all names.

We put others before ourselves

As fitness instructors, we often expend more energy teaching a workout than our students do performing the workout. We alternate between the role of host, educator, safety monitor, motivator, and sometimes entertainer. It’s physically and mentally taxing, but it can also be tremendously rewarding as we see our members develop new skills and reach their goals. A great class can give us the same exercise high and sense of happy satisfaction as we help our participants achieve.

Once in a while, we have a day, or a period of time, where we have neither the energy nor desire to teach. One instructor described it as severe fatigue. Others describe it as a feeling of disconnection, moving through cement, going through motions like a zombie, or being in a fog. The common trend in the description seems to be a feeling of extra distance between ourselves and our desire/ability to connect with others, and the feeling of a daunting amount of effort required to do so.

What then? 

Short Term Tips

Here are some quick methods contributed by instructors for how they motivate themselves to teach on days when they’re feeling down and not looking forward to teaching a class.

Compartmentalizing

Instructors fight sadness by creating a temporary barrier between the rest of their day and their class. This helps them get through their class. Here are some creative suggestions for how instructors define their barriers:

  • Imagine putting all of your problems in a box, shutting the box, and setting it just outside the group-ex room. All the problems are still there for when class is over, but they don’t enter the group-ex space.
  • Using apparel as a trigger to mood-shift. It could be a hat, cycling shoes, the microphone. Once that piece of apparel goes on, that’s the signal for the instructor to rally.
  • Using location as a trigger to mood-shift. Like Clark Kent entering a phone booth and exiting as Superman, one instructor takes three deep breaths and then smiles before getting out of the car. As soon as the car door opens, an energetic instructor emerges. Other instructors done their teaching personality the moment they enter the gym or the group-ex room.
  • Using the start of class as a trigger to mood-shift. “Teaching (format) helps me to fight depression through the way it makes me feel empowered. It amazes me how my body can suddenly become energetic when I turn on the music, even if I've been fighting mind-numbing fatigue all day (or all week in some cases). When I see that, my mindset shifts from "I can't" to "I CAN", which carries over several days.
  • Listen to upbeat music before class. Energetic music can be mood-lifting, so a common tactic instructors use to up their energy before class is to play their favorite music or sing.
Self-Care & Relationships

A fundamental principle in chemistry (first law of thermodynamics) is that energy is neither created nor destroyed.  More simply put, if we are giving energy to our students, we need to find ways to recharge our energy outside of class if the class itself is sapping our energy. Here are some tips on how to focus on you and build lasting relationships:

  • “I make sure I do at least one thing for ME every day – meditate, read a lot, and do yoga for myself.”
  • Learning how to say NO, when saying yes would take away time for self-care or generate resentment.
  • Taking other instructors’ classes, taking a long walk, or other exercise.
  • Massage, manicure, floating, and other self pampering activities that create a sense of restfulness and calm.
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Eat nourishing foods.
  • Build satisfying connections outside of class, with family, friends, and pets. “My saving grace are friends who show up at my doorstep and pretty much say, ‘Hey girl, get your shoes on. We’re going out!’”
  • Take joy from the act of teaching. “I feel empowered in that I CAN make a difference in someone else's life, even if I feel like my life is falling apart.  I feel connected, loved, and supported with every sweaty smile that students send back.”
Positive Self-Talk

Positive self-talk and engaging in a gratefulness practice. Over a half-dozen respondents sent tips that included positive affirmation, gratefulness, and reframing their “job” as a “privilege” or a “calling.”

Long-Term Tips

The tips above work well when we have a temporary bout of the blues and there’s no sub in sight. We can run at an energy deficit for a little while, assuming that better days will come very soon and we’ll catch up on energy.  Things become more complicated when the blues persist.  Here are some of the coping mechanisms other instructors have used to function while fighting depression.

Ask for help
  • Seek professional assistance. This is the most private way to get help if you think you’re depressed and you can’t shake it on your own. A qualified mental health professional won’t judge you and will offer you multiple options for reducing your symptoms.
  • Talk to a close friend. One instructor does weekly “walk and talks” with a friend. Neither is a qualified counselor, but the regular opportunity to talk to a supportive friend feels helpful.
  • Tell your class, a fellow instructor, or a few select attendees. Three of the instructors experiencing depression and anxiety took the brave step of telling their class and coworkers about the issue. They were surprised with the positive support they received from their members.  One suggests drawing attention to a vibrant member during difficult days, letting the class follow that member as the “high energy” version of the move, while doing a lower energy move herself.
Determine whether you need a break from teaching.

Exercise usually helps alleviate depressive symptoms. Occasionally, however, the effort to teach uses up more energy than we have, and we’re too worn out after class to fulfill other responsibilities.

One of the reasons I chose to write about this topic is that I’ve been through chronic moderate-to-severe depression myself. One of the worst episodes was right after my father died. I would teach a high-energy class then feel so drained I would go home and collapse on the sofa, completing only the barest of tasks for keeping myself and my family alive. I could pretend everything was OK for an hour, but at the expense of doing my job as mom. So I scaled back.

Now, after managing depression for 16 years, I can tell that for me, over-committing is a sign my condition is getting worse and that I have to be careful about how many “yes” answers I give to others when a yes to someone else means a no to my own self-care.

Love Yourself
  • Love and forgive yourself, even on the days where you feel terrible, eliminating the word “should” from your vocabulary as much as possible.
  • Try something completely unfamiliar and challenging. After the loss of her son in 2016, an instructor started running. “I had an urge to do something to benefit me. No one else. I had a friend who would meet me every Saturday at the gym, just to help me get out of the house. I couldn’t even run a mile. I cried, I felt lost, and not sure. We kept meeting Saturday morning at the gym for months. I would still have many times of not wanting to workout. Not feeling strong and confident. Then one day I kid you not, I had a thought of doing a triathlon. I told my friend, she thought about it as well. So we researched, and signed up for one. We trained together, on our own. I didn’t care what my time or place was. I just knew I wanted to finish. I did it! I had workouts of heartache and grief and pain and I can do this. I knew I had to.  Anyways, I know depression is real, I live with it. Some days are good and not good. What kept me going and made me continue was the peace I felt. I could hear my son cheer for me.”

Depression is a real illness.

Depression is real, and it’s unique to each individual who experiences it.  If you’ve never had an episode of depression, please try to hold compassion for friends, family and coworkers who have it. We didn’t choose it, and comments like, “It can’t be that bad,” “Suck it up, buttercup,” or my personal favorite, “Welcome to the real world,” aren’t helpful. If you have depression, even if you’ve tried every tip on the above lists and they didn’t help, take away this – 43 people responded to me within a day of asking for commentary on my article. You are not alone.

Be well, everyone.

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.


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