by Samantha Pruitt
Like many people, I have lived with periods of both depression and anxiety.
For me, it started way back in my turbulent teenager phase of life. My home life, school life and even my own inner world were very challenging places to be. While growing up, all of us are taught various ways to cope with the world around us, therefore we all have the potential for things to go awry while under ‘self construction.’
If we are lucky, we have empowering role models and life teachers who support our young minds and emotions with positive, healthy tools to navigate this minute to minute construction project called living. If we are less fortunate, our families and communities of influence may simply not have the tools themselves, and so instead they impart dysfunctional hammers and nails. Then unconsciously, we begin to carry our monogrammed tool box full of heavy hammers and nails around in the world, where we are provided ample opportunities to hone these poor carpenter coping skills upon ourselves and others.
While we craft our own body and life’s home, we often end up using unproductive skills, self destructive wood planks and unstable building blocks that were all made from stress, anxiety and depression. Ultimately then these bricks and boards required to build our physical, emotional and spiritual body end up having cracks and causing instability in our life home’s foundation.
In reflection now, it’s a miracle I survived my teenage to young adult years at all! My path was tumultuous at best. Drugs, alcohol, risky behavior, food abuse, bad relationships, lack of guidance and eventually loss of my family home foundation caused me to lose any hope of future, or sense of value in my own life.
To recap: I was born into an immigrant family who came to the USA in search of the American Dream. It was a roller coaster for all of us searching for our place in the world but we continued to work hard and have hope. My first breaking point came at the age of 15, when I woke up in a hospital bed close to death after an intentional overdose. I survived, while permanently damaging my health, and after taking my emotional state down to the bare threads.
Tricked by my family into a rehab center full of drug addicted adults, I shifted my gaze from sadness and shame into fear and anger. No, I did not get sober or even discover the root of my pain, however I did develop a deep sense of rejection and hardening towards the world. By age 16, I was living with friends, working and going to school – the very bare minimum. In the course of those 6 months I had gone from wild child to instant adulthood. By age 17, I took the GED and left school purely in survival mode. I found a surrogate family through my prom date boyfriend and by age 20 we were married.
Adulting hard, my use of alcohol and food abuse continued, making for a crappy home life and a fierce battle with depression. At age 25, I gave birth to my beautiful baby boy and by 26 I was divorced. Becoming a working single mother created another pivot point – but this time for the positive. I dialed back on partying and started to use running as a way to rebuild my (at that point 40lbs overweight) body and to manage my stress. Fed up, not really knowing how to create a healthy lifestyle or even what a true healthy body and sound mind felt like, I began my search for self. I did not know how to find this authentic human being I had been born of, but I did know that my life was truly broken. I became fueled inside by the deep knowledge that my new son and I both deserved better. That next year I lost 20lbs, found a new stable relationship with a man whose values we both needed most, and took a huge leap of faith. I sold my home, quit my job and moved my toddler son and myself to San Diego for a fresh start.
At the age of 29 I was remarried and became a Step Mom, working now in my husbands business. We did a lot of moving and a lot of figuring things out through trial and error. Raising our kids, building our marriage and running our business was all consuming. Sadly, however, it took no time at all for the old anxiety and depression to raise its ugly head again, and to bring back my old abuse cycle with alcohol, food and lack of self care, ultimately manifesting yet another health crisis. You see – I simply did not have the foundation or tools for carrying big loads of life, no matter how much I wanted these gifts. I simply had to commit to create brand new scaffolding for my own unstable body and mind’s house.
I also needed to understand what caused these earthquakes where normal stress, appropriate sadness or manageable fear shook me to the core. Why was my mind and my heart tormented by these looming dark clouds? And then, when these storm clouds hovered and blocked out my fresh air and sunlight, how could I open the window to move towards warm sun rays and healthy choices once again?
After years of self-medicating with the beat down hammers of alcohol, food, stress and depression, I eventually broke BIG TIME. I ballooned up to 180lbs, yet I was severely malnourished and anemic. I was home sick yet again – literally. Barely able to roll out of bed, I sat numb on my toilet hoping to rid my body of the toxic emotions and waste. Suddenly I knew the hard truth my body had been trying to share all along. I could choose to waste this second chance and die, sooner rather than later, from lack of self love and care, or I could fight.
I had witnessed my mother battling cancer off and on for half of her short life, seen my dad die of a sudden heart attack, plus lost close friends whose lives were cut short by bad choices. I had also seen people I admired living lives full of health, passion and adventure. It was time to make a choice. I stood up, got dressed and headed to the bookstore in search of my own cure for misery.
Countless books, mentors, classes, explorations and self investments later I was on the path of healing. Thankfully, I had a loving tribe around me and a life worth living that fully supported my self-induced renovation project. In this ‘breaking of Sam’ at age 30, I developed an autoimmune disease (a disease where your own body turns against itself). Fighting back this time by self-investing, I built a new skill set of natural and holistic elements, including whole nutrition, daily exercise and stress reduction habits. I built boundaries with others and environments that did not serve my healing. I created new daily habits and rituals that gave me the grace I needed to mend my heart, my mind and my body.
Over the next two years I had plenty of bad days, but they were gradually outweighed by the good days. I slowly lost 50lbs, shed my layers of anger and sadness, then set free my burdens of shame from my past. One day at a time I built a brand new life foundation from whole nutrition, physical movement outdoors and connection to my life’s purpose. I developed tools for building my best body and life that helped me feel empowered and inspired, so I was able to cope with the dark moments, rather than smothered weak by their weight. I gradually turned my entire career and life’s work towards this journey of healing so that I could both stay grounded for me, as well as serve others who battled along my side. Not to be confused with real mental illness, I propose now from my own learning that there is a secret weapon for many of us. A free legal drug exists that is available to us all for both emotional health and mental strength called ENDURANCE.
As I rebuilt my own couch potato body and life, l discovered that the high peaks and deep valleys of depression and anxiety were no match for the sweat-covered outdoor adventures and endurance sports legal dope experience. No insurance required, no nasty side effects and totally free! For the last 18 years I have used this holistic prescription and gotten off all toxic drugs, unhealthy food and alcohol. This not only allowed me to build a new physical body and new brain chemistry, but I also developed the mindset of resiliency and powerful self-worth that is required to take your life to the next level in all arenas. I discovered my authentic new career path in fitness and wellness, simplified my life so I could live in two communities that support my success. Now I feel I have plenty of self love and energy to also support the transformation and success of those whose lives I touch.
But why do endurance sports and outdoor adventures have so much power in countering depression and anxiety?
First off, it is because these actions create a real physiological response once you start getting oxygenated blood pumping freely through your body. When you exercise, natural hormones and neurotransmitters like endorphins are released into your bloodstream, and they interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. Dopamine, the organic body chemical responsible for motivation and pleasure, is also generated. Serotonin is released to stabilize your mood and appetite, as well as increase your sex drive and sleep quality. And finally the ‘love hormone’ that inspires human bonding, oxytocin, is made. The natural high is REAL!
Second, when you do these activities outside in the sunlight, you also make Vitamin D, and that helps regulate behavior and emotions. Outside, the animals, plants, sounds, sights you experience moving thru the outdoor space make it impossible not to connect with the Earth and your high power as you reflect on your place in the circle of life.
Third, self propelling your own person over the miles through endurance sports activities will change how you perceive your own body and its deep resources as you test your limits and explore your edges. Through both the bliss and the suffering you create, you’ll discover a power like no other. When running ultra long distances that once seemed impossible, I opened myself up to an unknown potential at a whole new level. Not a believer yet? It has been scientifically proven that daily exercise and keeping an adventure log or gratitude journal dramatically increases your productivity, creativity, intelligence and longevity.
Additionally, these types of physical activities impact how you emotionally and spiritually connect to others and to your environment as a whole.
Lastly, they also influence who you attract into your daily life, and the habits you create, because you’re training now. You’re moving and operating as an athlete building your best self. All of this I know to be true so I am hooked for life.
I decided to then ask others and here are a few of the insights they shared:
“Anxiety comes in different forms; mine happens to manifest in anger. While I’m training, it releases the anger and replaces it with the feeling of joy and pride. When I get depressed, my underlying feeling is that nothing I’m doing is working or going how I want it to. But when I race, it’s me against obstacles, me against the world. So I do whatever it takes to get through each obstacle and reach the finish line where I am rewarded by feelings of strength, power, resiliency and pride.”
Autoimmune Warrior & Spartan Athlete – AE
“Running clears my mind of the daily grind and allows me to just focus on me and my natural surroundings. After I’ve completed a long run or a challenging course, I feel good about myself and have great satisfaction in what I’ve accomplished.”
Recovering Alcoholic & Ultra Runner – JG
“The long slow grind of the miles are like a peeling back of the personal layers so that the old thoughts and patterns are released and the new growth may come. Now rather than locking myself inside and letting the darkness take hold, I force myself to go out and use the sun and the air to heal my soul.”
College Student & Mountain Biker – CW
A funny thing happened when I opened up these coaching conversations with others about this deeply personal problem we all shared. We each released some of the toxic load that anxiety and depression feed off of. We saw each other as fellow warriors who we could rely on for borrowing battle tools as needed. We realized that we were not to blame, nor were we victims. We became connected and we became empowered through both our common journey and our organic solution. As part of my life purpose, I coach and mentor others to develop their own tips, habits, and tool kits for building the best body and life possible now. My life’s work is deeply personal, as I create meaningful experiences for others through outdoor adventure and endurance sports, to dig in and discover their own best selves.
With my kids all grown and my husband now retired, we moved into a tiny house on the California Central Coast. We also bought a home in Moab, Utah, where the desert’s energy and town’s love overflows my cup, now splitting our time with the ocean and desert as our heart calls. These beautiful places have become an oasis for my daily life that includes endurance sports and outdoor adventures like trail running, mountain biking, hiking, strength training and power yoga. Now Fierce at Fifty, I plan to explore more wild places and connect to more positive people than I ever thought possible. All of these things add up to the individual building of a personal evolution of the whole me. The best ME I can be.
In conclusion, it turns out that the new definition of happiness that I came across in Buddhism is right!
“Happiness = the JOY you feel when you are moving towards your potential.”
By using the lifestyle habits of outdoor adventures and endurance sports we not only heal our spirits and rebuild our bodies and lives, but we truly do build happiness as we move towards our potential. Depression and anxiety clouds may swish by us from time to time still, but instead of covering us like a blanket of dust, they wash off our backs because we are covered in sweat.