How to Train like a Stoic [Overcoming The Internal Inertia of Depression]

I will never forget working at the ‘Happy Feet’ opening dinner in London. For those of you who don’t know, my foray into fitness began as a waiter at many of London’s top events.

Dizzying amounts of people had begun to arrive and I could see Robin Williams talking to a small group of them. He was almost frantic in his imitation of whatever it was he was explaining, you could see from a mile away that he was passionate, driven and really, really sad.

I think most people would appreciate how ironic this is; Depression is a mask many of us wear every single day. How many people do you know that might express their frustrations with this monster in private but in public, say absolutely nothing? As a good friend once said to me, “these battles are often won and lost in the mind”.

The problem is that nobody talks about this invisible handicap and its partner in crime; the ego. After all, it’s elusive, repetitive and for most people some days can be dramatically worse than others.

With the recent news regarding Chester Bennington, Robin Williams and the literal hundreds of other people struggling to portray themselves as they are, I thought that it would be wise to share my story.

Depression is one of the most abused terms of this century. If you are like me you know that the term tends to vary dramatically depending on literal and figurative interpretations. I am not a fan of labels and more importantly, our society’s current stance on the issue.

For me learning about clinical depression started at a young age. I watched my father’s exhausting search for a treatment culminate in 25 years of limited relief. From the very beginning I knew, the more you associate with abusive people, the more you focus on the negative, the more depressed you will become. It was clear there were some very obvious problems associated with ‘depression’ that never get discussed and that includes the over prescription of many forms of dangerous medication.

I began to see that most people are not clinically depressed but they get thrown on the bandwagon due to a number of factors. Whether that is mourning, fatigue, trauma or work related stress, our medical fraternity has largely failed to understand how our immune systems influence our daily moods, rhythms and health. Let’s face it, many of us are depressed because of our own poor choices, it’s not always the ’depression’ but rather the label has become a handy oversimplification  for a complex interplay of personal problems we may or may not ignore.

The Fury of Patient Men

A major reason for this is how repetitive most marketing and information in the fitness industry is. I’m 33 this year and with half of my life dedicated to recovering from addiction, building a business from scratch and managing my own depression I’ve noticed a few subtleties about self neglect and general wellbeing.

I recently did some research on depression while perusing Facebook groups and I got a glimpse of the number of mutual friends who belonged to groups like, ‘Living with Anxiety’ or, ‘Depression Sufferers Unite’. It seemed like more than 90% of people who supported fitness groups on Facebook also had severe feeling of anxiety, isolation and a deep sense of worthlessness.

The story we tell ourselves about our past is influenced by our perceived limitations. Our hopes and fears dig their heels hard into unrealistic fantasies. Our egos often downplay the amount of work that goes into a fundamental shift in health or wellbeing.

As you most certainly know, the world does not reward people for keeping it simple. Our society is rife with inequalities that are at their very core, a failure to address what is important. For the first time in history we get to put our best selves in the lime light and pretend (even if it’s for a moment) that finally, ‘I’m good enough’ and convince ourselves that change has finally occurred.

In a very real sense our struggle in this millennium will be an internal one. I keep wondering, how is the phrase, ‘history repeats itself’ going to manifest itself in a world where our digital personalities may be a reflection of our deepest insecurities?

For me it’s really this concept of identity and how our perceptions of ourselves start influencing our mental health.

Let’s get some real context on these issues by starting at the beginning. Most of us at some point of our lives will experience anxiety or depression. A tremendous amount of these experiences will happen to us before we even leave school.

School, like our workplaces, is often filled with hidden agendas, social politics and the fervor of a culture obsessed with doing more. More money, more clothes, and more work. We now have a cornucopia of acronyms to describe many different kinds of mental and physical diseases but, what if at their root, they represent a very obvious marker for the stagnation of our moral and ethical dilemmas.

Let us take a moment to remember that our culture’s ability to ignore complex and often pathological behaviors is best represented by a lack of support for the homeless.

In the realm of drug addiction, suicide and depression, it has become harder and harder for people between the ages of 10 and 30 to simply ask for help, but, it has become easier and easier for psychologists and medical practitioners to use treatments that incentivize the prescription of band aid solutions.

Our current societal dilemma speaks to the very heart and soul of not just a disenfranchised state but a poverty of being, doing and taking accountability for our actions.

I’m not interested in telling my story because I am looking for attention.

I’m telling people about my journey because I have found a balance between acknowledging the past and enjoying my future. We all choose our own story in one way or another and I hope that this article will encourage people who suffer from depression to not take the worst parts of themselves so seriously.

You don’t need to chase after happiness, it comes to each of us when we pay our dues.

If It Ain’t Broke…

Shortcuts and quick fixes have always held appeal. Let me put it this way, the easy way out is even more dangerous in the hands of somebody struggling to identify why they are stuck in life. It’s not that at the heart of our inner conflicts we do not deserve to be happy but, what if the foundation of health (mental and physical) is cultivated by work and not inspiration, causation or gratification?

Our anxieties and lack of discipline lead us into an extremely thought provoking quandary. On the one hand we all want results as fast as possible. It is precisely this process of delayment of gratification which has allowed us to create change in our lives.

For many it is precisely this cycle that is holding them back.

The temptation is always there no matter which career you have chosen. “If I do this performance enhancing drug, finally I’ll be ready”, or “If I wear my clothes in this way my tummy won’t show”. People are relying so much on inspiration, the perspiration required to succeed has been minimized.

It’s why you see trends emerging in fitness and healthcare that treat changing your life as an 8 week affair. Without the necessary foundation it won’t matter which pill, program or medication you take. You are always going to feel stuck if you don’t accept that you will always recycle your experiences if you do not learn to think differently.

“The greatest damage done by neglect, trauma or emotional loss is not the immediate pain they inflict but the long-term distortions they induce in the way a developing child will continue to interpret the world and her situation in it. All too often these ill-conditioned implicit beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies in our lives. We create meanings from our unconscious interpretation of early events, and then we forge our present experiences from the meaning we’ve created. Unwittingly, we write the story of our future from narratives based on the past…Mindful awareness can bring into consciousness those hidden, past-based perspectives so that they no longer frame our worldview.’Choice begins the moment you disidentify from the mind and its conditioned patterns, the moment you become present…Until you reach that point, you are unconscious.’ …In present awareness we are liberated from the past.”

― Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

Here is an example of the above in play. About a year ago I was seeing a client who suffers from mild depression. He came to me to get in shape, get some abs and improve his health.

Instead of addressing going to bed at 12am each night due to social media addiction the client constantly complained of an inability to sleep. As a coach there is a huge difference between being able to help somebody who can’t sleep and then seeing the person in question on Facebook late at night. Was this person prescribed sleeping medication? You bet and the worst part of it all was being told that the program was not working. If sleep is not happening there will be absolutely no effect from the training except a reduction in muscle mass and we all know how that turns out for long term improvements in body composition.

I’m not saying the conventional thinking is bad but many people seem to have lost the ability to look openly and honestly at how they live, work and train. I see so many people who earn excessive amounts of money with the same problem. Their debt has grown in proportion to the idea that more is better. It’s just not.

Example: The failure to recognize an addiction is often a critical factor in building the awareness required to change. Since we all at some point of our lives will be addicted to something, the inclination to avoid the problem is often more crushing than the rehabilitation. At some point it’s the individuals rationale that fails and not the method.

Conventional wisdom says that even looking at your cellphone right before you sleep shouldn’t prevent you from getting a good night’s rest but sleep hygiene is one of the hardest things to teach potential clients because nobody can make the individual switch off the phone and put it in the drawer.

Habits, inspiration or band-aid treatments will never be a match for discipline and accountability; the possibilities that these two concepts can create is infinite and my success as an individual is testament to that. I’m not trying to tell my story to sell a product. I am telling my story to create long lasting change that accumulates instead of strangulates.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”

― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Conclusion

Here are the most important lessons that I have learned as a coach. I hope they will help you understand the importance of the reverse Pareto principle and its role in eliminating weakness in your training and mental health journey.

Definition 1: The Pareto principle is a principle, named after economist Vilfredo Pareto, which specifies an unequal relationship between inputs and outputs. The principle states that 20% of the invested input is responsible for 80% of the results obtained.

Definition 2: the diminution or counteraction of an effect by its own influence on the process giving rise to it, as when a high level of a particular hormone in the blood may inhibit further secretion of that hormone, or where the result of a certain action may inhibit further performance of that action. If we were to use this analysis in reverse we could determine what 20% of the inputs were creating 80% of the problems. In this case the 20% of factors negatively affecting the individual’s ability maintain a healthy relationship with food, training, sleep or stress.

As an example, let’s look at personal hygiene. One misconception about health and fitness is that personal hygiene plays almost no role in determining your results in the gym; how scary it must be for individuals ignorant of these facts to see the scientific literature highlighting the negative effects that poor oral hygiene can have on the gut microbiome.

The reason for this is actually a kind of bias. As human beings our motivation for determining our progress is motivated by the extrinsic desire to make progress which often simultaneously ignores obvious requirements for success.

When we acknowledge that progress is as much about what we don’t do rather than a ‘plan’ or overly structured regime we can  accelerate optimisation at a much faster rate.

Brushing your teeth every morning and eating the right breakfast is more important than what Whey protein you waste your money on. Liquid meals are often a source of allergens and Soy. You don’t need them in any way shape or form to make mindful progress with any goal. They are an add-on, that is all.

Let’s take the concept of ‘rest and digest’. The ability to assimilate the food you eat is more important than taking expensive supplements but, not all foods are created equal. Before we begin counting calories it is important that we understand that the Calories from 100 grams of Broccoli is never going to be the same as a 100 grams of Paleo bread. These foundations form the basis of a strong and lean body BUT, the more we look at branding and advertising in the fitness industry the more we see trends developing that tell us to do the reverse.

Great for selling merchandise but definitely not for long term health and satisfaction.

Stoic Lesson No. 1: Begin In The Way You Wish To Continue

So if you have read any of my other writing you will know that I am a huge believer in up-regulating the secretion of the endogenous hormones responsible for becoming stronger, leaner and happier. By manipulating variables related to lifestyle design and training it’s actually really easy to wake up in the morning feeling rested. Now you can start making progress from training session to training session further influencing a positive head space.

The first and most important step to normalizing your hormonal status and improving your health is and will always be, eating the right foods for breakfast. Now for some of you that might sound too simple but learning how to train is a lot like sharpening a sword.

What you put in is what you get out.

Stoic Lesson No.2: Focus On What You Can Control 

For so many people learning how to train properly is an uncomfortable experience. I remember the first time I was taught an offset dumbbell curl on incline (this was when I was 16) and oh man, it burned so bad. You are going to have to learn to never give up, more importantly, your ego is going to get ahead of you in quest to do something as fast as possible. Fast simply does not last.

I would spend a little bit of writing down your goals with a specific date, taking some before and after pictures and also giving yourself a reasonable time frame to change. If you have a chronic history of anxiety or depression it’s even more important to avoid competitions that force you to publish your results before you are ready. Remember, social media is a major trigger for some people.

Lesson No. 3: Let Go Of Your Ego

It’s a widely accepted fact that fitness professionals do not always agree but some of the best advice I have ever received from other coaches is downright rude. The truth is progress is not always linear, rather take harsh advice from a coach that has been in the trenches.

Two universal realities: most people do not tolerate carbs well and certainly, most people don’t train hard enough. That does not mean going to the gym 5 days a week but rather educating yourself about basic compound lifts and sprinting.

Lesson No. 4: Train Your Muscles To Train Your Mind

Training has been conclusively demonstrated to increase the secretion of every hormone required to live a longer and happier life. When people say, ’I’m depressed’ my first reaction is always to ask them, ‘when was the last time you trained’ and find out if they enjoyed the workout.

It’s really is easy to just do some chin-up’s, push-up’s or sprints and immediately feel that sucky feeling go away. Most people don’t need Prozac, they need to get some fresh air and start sticking to a routine!

A trick that I learned a long time ago was to train right before I engaged with a stressful or anxiety provoking situation, similarly, time in the sun has been dramatically shown to decrease the symptoms associated with depression. It’s a no brainer.

Practice the stoic art of focusing on what you can control and then doing the work. It’s a healing experience.

Lesson No. 5: Only Strong Foundations Matter

Normal people should be eating up to a Kilogram of cruciferous and leafy vegetables each day. The Sulphuric content of these food groups makes them excellent detoxification tools.

I’ve seen clients easily lose up to 3% bodyfat in two weeks by just eating as much veg as possible each day. Do you need a fatburner? No. Do you need a diet? No. Do you need to become an athlete to become healthy and happy? No.

I’ll say it again, great coaches stick to utilizing tools that are timeless. They work for a reason. Unfortunately, most people just don’t want to sit and chew their food. If you care about your health you will make the effort.

Lesson No. 6: Embrace Constant Change

As we approach the end of this article I want to reiterate that change is measured by how you feel and not a quick before and after picture. Throw out the scale, 12 week programs and all the bogus diets you think are the priority. Nobody should be actively ‘dieting’ unless they engage in sports or have performance related goals.

I challenge you to look honestly at your training and ask yourself if you are really working hard enough to justify so much of the complexity we see in training and nutrition.

It’s not about completing 50 workouts a month, it’s about realizing that with the correct progressions you could get lean, strong and happy with just two sessions a week. A method I have already used with countless people.

In the words of Seneca, “True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”