Regulating mood disorders with running

A common assessment strategy therapists use when a client is reporting depressive symptoms is a simple tracking calendar.  For a week a person will be asked to record hour-by-hour activities.  As the therapist I'm looking for patterns in the person's routine that may indicate emotional dysregulation. 

Emotional dysregulation---the cause of the depressive symptoms--- is often a result of an imbalance in the brain chemistry or hormonal makeup of a person.  The factors that contribute most to a person's sense of emotional regulation, sometimes referred to as a sense of well being, are things like sleep, diet, and exercise.  

It should be noted that some people require medication to improve any imbalance in this chemistry/hormonal makeup.  This will be true for chronic mood disorders like bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder.  However, all mood imbalances can be improved by treating any of those regulatory factors: sleep, diet, and exercise.  Some mood symptoms are entirely eradicated by making lifestyle adjustment that improve sleep, diet, and/or exercise.  Some symptoms only improve with a combination treatment.  

If a person is sleeping poorly and mostly sedentary it would not be uncommon to see that person suffering from lack of motivation, feelings of low satisfaction, self worth, and well being.  They would seem depressed.  That is because the sleep and sedentary behavior lowers dopamine levels in the brain responsible for motivation, it lowers norepinephrine which softens the ability to focus, and the combination reduces serotonin responsible for feelings of satisfaction and happiness.  And voila, the recipe for a depressed mood.  This article won't get into it, but these things are also impacted by negative self-talk, past trauma's, and stress/anxiety.  

Running, and other forms of cardio exercise are a wonderful treatment option for a person that falls into these sorts of depressive patterns because running increases dopamine, increases norepinephrine, and serotonin.  It is these brain chemicals that contribute to the "runner's high" that is commonly experienced by routine runners.  In addition, people who run consistently report sleeping better, and tend to be conscientious about what they are putting into their bodies.  In short, running helps to regulate a person's neurological chemistry and directly impacts depressive mood symptoms.  

Some runners report that when they run they get into a state of "flow".  Flow is defined by the brain associating hard word with motivation and focus leading to feelings of fulfillment and enjoyment.  What neuroscience tells us is that flow is caused by an increase in dopamine and norepinephrine which is the byproduct of the physical effort behind running.  

I hope this is helpful information for anyone seeking to improve their life through lifestyle changes like regular running.    

Class Review

I've been reflecting on the material I presented in the Toddler (Preschooler) Parenting Class I offered in the month of August.  The class was arranged so that I would present on a topic relevant to parenting a 3-4 year old child, and then provide some fun play/art activities to demonstrate how, as a parent, we can help our children hone important developmental and social skills.  One week we (me and the parents) discussed delayed gratification, learning to wait,  and related skills while the children got to frost cookies (and had to wait to eat them!), make cheerio bracelets (concentration skills), and played a matching game (taking turns/waiting).    

The last week I presented on Positive Discipline.  The play/art activities were not quite as clear as to how they matched the topic of discipline.  We colored "feeling faces" and talked about providing a rich vocabulary and acceptance of feelings of all kinds.  We also made pictures of our hands and talked about the good things we can use our hands for vs. what they aren't used for ("hands are not for hitting").  We didn't get around to it, but we could have played more games like Simon Says, Red Light Greg Light which teach skills like listening and concentration, and group skills.  Free play would have been great too, as children tend to practice social skills, negotiate, and overcome conflict the most in this type of context.  

After the class on discipline I found myself reflecting quite a bit as to how these play and art (and reading... we read lots of relevant preschool age books) activities really are so great for parents who want to practice positive discipline.  Here is why: when children have a rich vocabulary and acceptance for their feelings they are more prone to cope than to act out.  Especially if they have been taught that "negative" emotions are healthy to have.  Everyone gets angry, for example, our anger is informative to us.  It tells us that we have been wronged, or that we are disappointed.  It can tell us that we need a break from a certain situation or person(s).  These are just a couple of examples.  A child that has been taught that they shouldn't express anger tends to either act in (self harm) or act out (hurt others), but a child that knows anger is ok, as long as it is expressed in a healthy way gets through it.  That child will be able to verbalize "when _____ happened, it hurt my feelings" and resolve the problem with the other person.  That child will know that it's ok to step back, take a break, and seek support rather than hit, bite, yell, or do damage.  And that's just the example of anger.  

This all matters in the context of free play as well.  The child with a rich understanding and acceptance of emotions will have an easier time negotiating, sharing, and overcoming conflict.  Of course, this type of coping comes with practice, time, and maturity, but it also happens on a spectrum, and the child who has good understanding of their own emotions is just better at regulating them.  And that matters when it comes to discipline.  Generally speaking, positive discipline is about helping a child learn to regulate themselves emotionally, physically, and socially.  Before I ran the class I was a very firm believer that teaching emotional vocabulary and emotional acceptance from an early age is one of the best things a parent can do to prepare a child to be a social being.  After teaching the class I came away with an even firmer conviction that this is the case.