Tag Archives: depression

Overtraining Syndrome: Our Bodies Are Ecosystems

the female body drawn with internal organs showing

Debbie says:

Brianna Sacks’ perrsonal story at BuzzFeed, “I Overstressed My Body Until It Shut Me Down” is simultaneously illuminating and familiar. Sacks is a runner and a journalist who had no idea she was endangering herself until her symptoms became extreme.

I’d had insomnia for nearly three months. I was so tired that my eyes hurt, but my mind was dark and wild, thoughts pinging so fast in every direction it felt like they were physically bouncing off my skull. My heart rate was racing too, as it had been for days. … My brain felt like a tunnel, fuzzily manic. I struggled to focus at work and felt anxious. My thighs, face, abdomen, arms, and chest had inflated and felt like hard jelly. Inside, I was heavy and numb.

Sacks describes herself and her motivations vividly:

I had put my body through so much stress, over and over, without giving it adequate rest, love, or nutrition, for a long time. I’ve viewed and treated my body like a machine, militant in the way I command it to grind and perform. In life, I subscribe to a “do at all costs” mentality. I seem to have been born with one speed: go. And I live for the hustle because, while a lot of it is my personality, society often defines success as how much you can do and how well you can do it. As a 32-year-old millennial, I felt like I had to be bionic to succeed. As a journalist, the more news I can break, the more likely I can keep this job and rise in my career. Plus, I genuinely love my work. I’m intrinsically pulled toward disaster zones, mass shooting sites, and racial justice protests, and I am not satisfied until I am burrowed deep in the intensity, so I can get to the root of the pain and problem and share the voices of those who are hurting. I get into this gear, and I prioritize stories over my own health, because they matter more to me than sleep, rest, or food. And during these high-pressure work events, I run, because the movement helps clear my mind and soul of what I’ve taken in.

I don’t agree with the way she sees her body as somehow separate from herself: “I” do these things to “my body,” which responds to “me.” Although that’s an extremely common cultural formulation, I would say that my body and my mind (and my spirit), to the extent that they can be separated, are all me–and perhaps that framing helps us to value and care for all aspects of ourselves (not that I am a model for doing that well, just to be clear).

Sacks goes on to tell more of her personal story, and to explain some of the mechanisms of overtraining, drawing on the work of Dr. David Niemann, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University:

Your heart rate spikes doing easy things, like walking up the stairs. Your athletic performance plummets. You can’t sleep, but are exhausted all the time; you become moody and depressed. You lose your appetite, sex drive, and can get sick more easily. If you have a menstrual cycle, it stops, and hormone levels go all over the place. Dozens of elite athletes have quickly disappeared from ultrarunning when seemingly at the peak of their careers. People who once could run hard for 24 hours ended up damaging their systems so badly they could barely make it around the block before their heart rate rocketed and breathing became too labored. This past summer, Olympic swimmer Simone Manuel said that she failed to qualify for the 100-meter freestyle finals because OTS had made her a shell of herself. (A significant factor in her condition, she pointed out, was the mental and emotional drain of seeing a pandemic and police brutality rip simultaneously through the Black community.)

Again, I don’t like the way Nieman calls the immune system “the weak link.” I would say the immune system, which triggers all these symptoms when it is overstressed, is the guardian–the strong link that is not prepared to see everything else fail. I’m also struck by the ways that overtraining syndrome, which I never heard of before I read Sacks’ article, mimics so many other stories.

If it’s not overtraining, it’s overwork. Or it’s burnout, which Sacks discusses. Or it’s anorexia. Or ongoing relationship stress. Or complex PTSD from childhood (which figures into Sacks’ story)  Or the intense level of effort required by being unhoused. Or living every day with micro- and macro-aggressions of racism or transphobia.  Or or or …

And not to mention the myriad failures of the immune system, and the cascading effects those have on the people who experience them. When the guardian of your total health can’t do its job, the consequences are extreme.

Sacks’ story ends on an encouraging note, as she talks about rebuilding herself slowly, gradually, and with awareness. She remains committed to the mind-body dichotomy, and I suspect that she agrees with Dr. Nieman that her immune system is the weak link. I really appreciate her deeply honest examination of where she was, how she got there, why it matters, and what she’s doing about it. She knows that she’s fortunate in having the choices she has, and the resources she has. And her essay provides a fine pathway to understanding just how internally interconnected each of us is … and the implications of that interconnection for sanity, health, and joy.


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When a Father has Post-Natal Depression


Debbie says:

In the 21st century, at least in some cohorts, men are more and more involved in raising their children, not just kicking a ball around but also changing diapers, handling 3 a.m. feedings: the mundane, demanding aspects of raising babies. Whether or not it takes a village to raise a child, it’s undeniable that two (or more) people are better at managing the needs of an infant than one person can be.

Writing in Roxane Gay’s Gay Mag, Aubrey Hirsch says “My husband’s struggle with post-partum depression was my struggle, too.”

Most mornings, D drags himself into the living room on all fours. He lies face-down on the interlocking foam floor tiles, his upturned arms at his sides. The baby crawls over him, tugging his hair, drooling on his t-shirts. He doesn’t move. …

D’s depression is the weather in our house, except there’s no forecast. Some days we wake to sunny skies, gentle breezes. We talk and laugh. We eat and nap. We watch the baby the way one watches a campfire, not for any particular reason, but because it is there and strangely fascinating in its combination of predictability and surprise.

Other days there are storms, rough winds, hailstones big enough to take chunks of flesh off the bone. D stomps angrily around the house. Or he stays in bed and cries. He rages, he weeps. He sleeps, or he doesn’t.

Okay, you say. He’s a man with clinical depression. Or maybe he’s just a big baby, jealous of the new attention-grabber in the house, wanting more of his wife’s time just for him, the way it used to be. And maybe you’re right. Hirsch felt the same way:

Here is my postpartum confession: I hated him.

I hated D so much I could barely look at him. This sniveling, mushy annelid. Didn’t he see me? Look what I was doing. I, too, was parenting a fussy newborn. I, too, was working a stressful job. I, too, was pushing aside exhaustion to care for our baby. Only I was doing it more! I was up all night. I was using what precious energy I had to convert calories into breast milk. The baby wouldn’t drink from a bottle, or a syringe, or a spoon, or the fancy supplemental nursing system the lactation consultants swore would work, so I was doing Every. Single. Feeding. I was doing it amongst wildly fluctuating hormones and thyroid numbers that, three months after the baby’s birth, still weren’t balanced correctly. I was doing it with fresh stitches, with aching breasts, while actively bleeding. But I was doing it!

And what was he doing? Crying, kicking things, slamming doors, punching walls. To me, he seemed like a soap-opera housewife, in the grip of some inflated tragedy, flopping around the house.

This is the crux of the essay. It’s impossible to blame Hirsch for hating her husband — and yet, the very image of the “soap-opera housewife” is the canonical picture of someone who isn’t believed because of who she is. We frame the soap-opera housewife is spoiled, or lazy, or overdramatic, or self-centered–and then we don’t have to take her seriously. Similarly, the moment we frame the clearly miserable father of a new infant as a spoiled man-baby, we don’t have to take him seriously either. And he’s not the only one who suffers: the child and the mother both pay for the binary framing.

The essay goes on to describe the birth of their second child, after which D. was correctly diagnosed.

Now we treat it with antidepressants and therapy and support, support, support. After D starts treatment, everything in our house changes. Not only is he better equipped to cope, and to help, but I’m not mad at him anymore. Or, maybe I am, but not in the same way. I have a new enemy now, postpartum depression, and D and I are finally on the same team.

Hirsch’s essay focuses a lot on the importance of naming the issue, talking about what’s happening. That’s why she went public with her story. I appreciate that, because the concept was entirely new to me: of course, naming is an essential first step.

I can’t help focusing on three things that are completely missing from this well-told story:

1) why did they decide to have a second child after the intensely difficult first experience (I can think of plenty of reasons; I’d like to know theirs)?

2) Except for a passing acknowledgment that the term for this depression in cis men is “postnatal” rather than “postpartum,” Hirsch says nothing about the role of privilege in their story. Small clues indicate that they are white, reasonably affluent, educated, and have access to health insurance–and yet she never says how much harder their path would have been if any of those identities didn’t apply.

3) While she describes the problem I’m calling binary framing, she doesn’t name that. She doesn’t wrestle with how the fact that she hated him was part of the obstacle to finding out what was going on. She doesn’t talk about what it would have meant to believe D’s reactions, or how things might have been different. Okay, the doctors never asked D about postnatal depression, but what did he and she tell the doctors? Again, she was struggling with a new infant, an intolerable sleep schedule, and a miserable partner–no one expects her to be perfect. In a retrospective essay, however, more hindsight into what might have helped would be enormously useful to people who might be going through this now.