Imagine literally lifting your way out of mental illness, pushing away depression with every weight and movement. After struggling for years, New York-based trainer, dietician and mental health blogger Christine Coen realized this approach would save her.
To explore the intersection of fitness and mental health and inspire people with her story, Talkspace interviewed Coen. Keep reading to learn how she used fitness and healthy eating to boost her mental health.
When did you start struggling with mental health issues? Did anything specific cause these issues?
Note: You can read the shorter text version below if you prefer to read rather than watch a video.
I knew something was off when I got up early to train a 6 a.m. client at the gym, trained her for an hour, and then immediately drove back home, opened the freezer and ate a pint of ice cream while sitting on my couch watching TV.
I had no desire to do anything except numb out to food and TV. You could say that was an eye opener, but the truth is I was having depressed moods and anxiety about a year before that.
I first noticed my mood, energy and eating habits had changed in the transition from college to “the real world.” This wasn’t the only major change occurring in my life. During this time many things were not solid. Graduating college is a hugely underestimated transition, and although I already had a set plan to complete a one-year internship for my dietetic credential, there was a lot that was unstable.
My immediate family was going through an unsettled time. My parents were suddenly not living together and it affected me more than I realized. I came from a very positive college experience and moved back home into a depressed and difficult family situation.
About a year later, after returning from an eight-week backpacking trip to Europe (where I experienced no depression, anxiety or eating issues), my stress, fatigue, depressed moods and disordered eating came back almost instantly. This is when I really started to get affected.
Change is a funny thing. It can be amazing, but still there are stresses involved as you adjust. All within three months, I began my first job as a registered dietitian, I was in the middle of a new relationship, and my family situation (which I was living in the midst of) was worsening.
All of these changes at once were more than I could handle. The combination of poor time management, highly stressful environments at home and work weighed heavily on me. I started to drown.
The motivation to train myself and eat healthy was weakened to something I had never experienced. I would wake up exhausted, crave sugar and other junk foods that I would eat whenever I wanted, fight fatigue throughout the day, (and convince myself training wouldn’t help me feel better), take naps whenever I could and daydream about getting home and numbing out to TV. Once I did get home at night, I would fight sleep because I didn’t want to wake up and do it all again the next day.
I was in a miserable cycle, and i didn’t know how to get myself out of it. Part of me didn’t want to put in the energy to try some days. Worst of all I was too embarrassed to tell anyone because I felt, as a Personal Trainer and Registered Dietitian, I should be able to keep myself together as an example to my clients. I was failing at that.
When did your workouts and healthy dieting become a way to battle those mental health issues? What was that like?
Until I was unhappy, I didn’t realized working out and eating healthy was making me happy. I took my love of fitness for granted for all those years. I did it without thinking.
I specifically remember feeling grey inside, like winter; bleak with no vivid colors or life. Then I would workout; Lift, walk, run, dance, move, and all of a sudden, like Dorothy landing in Oz, I felt color within me again.
When you are unhappy or apathetic for days or weeks at a time, you recognize what DOES make you feel even an ounce of joy. I recognized moving my body no matter what way — yoga, walking, running, lifting, dancing — always made me feel better and happier for a few hours.
I knew it would help me feel better, but that does not mean I always did it. There’s an expression that goes something like, you have two beasts inside you. The one that thrives is the one you feed.
Well, this is very true with my experience. I felt there was a constant inner battle between the depression and my actual self. The one I indulged became stronger.
After about three years struggling with my mental health, I committed to working on it. I realized I could use working out, even if it was only moving for five minutes at home, to help clear my mind of a lot of negative self talk and accomplish something for the day.
These five-minute “mood boosters,” as I called them, would give me enough motivation to function for a few hours. I realized I could accumulate this feeling if I was consistent, and I became addicted to wanting to feel it every day. This is the base for what eventually got me back into the gym and training with weights on a regular basis.
In the beginning, most days I couldn’t convince myself to drive to the gym and workout, but I could manage doing some squats on my living room floor. My motivation and confidence grew from there.
Do you think therapy could be a good supplement to working out and vice versa?
I think therapy is a good resource for others going through similar issues. I’m sure if I had a good therapist, I would have found a way to manage the root cause of my issues more efficiently. I think therapy and training could be very positive tools to work synergistically with each other.
Describe the mental feeling you get from working out or lifting. How would that feeling be helpful for other people who need help with mental health problems?
After I’m finished I can literally feel high. Elated. Motivated. Clear. Ecstatic. Happy, uplifted. Empowered.
Rise and grind. Go after what keeps you up at night just thinking about it and what makes you jump out of bed in the morning. And for those who have never felt that way or haven’t felt that motivation in a very long time, you can rediscover it. Start small. Do 1 thing today that is different from your regular routine. Be open to seeing opportunity around you instead of negatives. Go out of your way and do something for someone else. ___ #getempowered #everysingleday #sugaraddict #snapchatgym #liftweightsfaster #beatdepression #beginnerworkout #collegefitness #collegeprobs #freshman15 #registereddietitian #trainingbasics #tbt #purplehairdontcare #pushyourlimits #girlsinthegym #girlswholift #flex #affirmations #ambivert #anxietyrecovery #mentalhealthrecovery #depressionrecovery #adhdawareness #exerciseforhappiness #exercisebenefits #depression #donuts #comfortzone #ccnutrifit #trainingbasics
I once had a client ask me if I was “newly in love” right after I finished a training session because my energy was so high while talking to her. I can go into a training session feeling super overwhelmed and worried about some slew of problems in my life and come out of that session feeling calm, focused, sometimes having a solution to the problem, or emerge knowing I can handle whatever that problem is.
You have talked about Instagram providing inspiration. Unfortunately, social media platforms such as Instagram have negative effects on many people. Why was it positive for you? What can people do to make social media a positive experience?
Social media, specifically Instagram, was a positive influence on the start of my recovery. I started following three regular women who made training and life look fun though their posts. These women posted a lot of photos of training in the gym, doing work they loved, and really living, not only existing. They were very positive and uplifting.
Every.Single.Day. Build the body. Build the mind. Strengthen the mind. Strengthen the body. Challenge what you did yesterday. Become 1 step closer to the person you want to become. Embrace the struggle, in it you will find your strength. ___ Comment below– how do you want to feel today and what 1 thing are you doing to get there? A photo posted by Snapchat ChristineCoen (@ccnutrifit) on
They were on journeys of their own to become a fitter and stronger version of themselves, so although aesthetics was a focus of these photos, it wasn’t the MAIN focus. Some were a bit transparent and opened up to the truth when things were hard, or when they “messed up” their workout or nutrition plan for a day. They made me realize I once loved training and living that much. I desired so much to feel that way again through their profiles.
I knew I could do it. I only needed to find the motivation, the WHY. After this epiphany I stopped training to lose weight and get fit. I realized this approach had not been enough in the past year to stay consistent on any program, no matter who was holding me accountable. I had to find a stronger WHY.
My WHY became rediscovering my inner strength again, discovering that happy person I knew I truly was and living my own version of joy. These Instagrams inspired me.
Don’t get me wrong, I see SO many negative influences on social media, and I did see it a bit around 2012 as well. I’m sure at times it did affect me negatively, but by that point I was on my own path and chose to only use things for motivation, not to bring me down (I was good at bringing myself down all on my own.) I choose to post things that provide value to my followers.
I want to inspire by being transparent and showing that although I’m at this level of inner strength now, it wasn’t always like that. I highlight how I built myself to be here the process of maintaining it. I want to inspire others to know another way that could work for their own recovery.
To this day, I only follow people who provide value in their posts. I choose what I follow, and if it’s not serving and inspiring me to be a better person or if I find it’s triggering negative thoughts, I simply click UNFOLLOW and Poof!, it’s gone.
What advice do you have for people who struggle with similar issues?
The road to recovery starts with the decision to make a choice every day to get better and do things that fuel your inner superhero. Starting your brain chemistry off on the right note through movement is a great way to help boost your body’s natural endorphins and get you going. Y
ou can do this without leaving your house (or even your bed on those days when you don’t feel like “human-ing”). Stretching, deep breathing, jumping jacks, dancing or if you feel like doing a five-minute set of squats/pushups/situps/jumps right there on your living room floor can all help ignite this.
I created a series of free workouts on YouTube based on my 5-Minute Mood boosters, a circuit of movements to help get your body and mind buzzing each morning.
Next I recommend listening to positive self-development each day. There are a ton of resources on YouTube and wonderful podcasts of positive mind and life changing thoughts that can help support your inner strength, especially at the beginning.
One of the main things I do everyday is listen to some kind of personal development audio. Some of my favorites are Lewis Howes School of Greatness, Tony Robbins, and You are a Badass (audiobook) by Jen Sincero. I still listen to something for at least 10 minutes each day, but in the beginning it helped block my negative thoughts and replaced them with positive thoughts. Even if these words were coming from someone else in the beginning, they soon became part of the fuel for my own Wonder Woman thoughts.
Also, eating food. REAL food. Period. Eating healthy whole foods is SO important.
Day 1 is down! Some of my tips and goals for the first day: 1. Clear out your home and office of your sugary temptations! 2. Go grocery shopping for the GO FOODS (see in files section of this group) 3. Write your goals for what you’re commuting to over the next 7 days. They don’t have to be the same as mine, but I want to see you write them down. It should look similar to mine in the sense that it’s clear, measurable, and realistic for you. My goal for the next 7 days is to not consume any products with added sugar or artificial sweetener- food or drink. I will track all my food in myfitnesspal so that I eat no more than 40g of SUGAR total each day. ___ #sugardetoxchallenge #sugardetox #wcw #grocerylist #dietgoals #anxietyrecovery #depressionrecovery #mentalheathawareness #liftlikeagirl #lifttolose #powerlifter #depressionfact #exercisebenefits #entrepreneurworkout #getempowered #ccnutrifit #ambivert #affirmations #introvert #fitmentality #fitnessvlog #snapchatgym #snapchatnyc #snapchatfit #snapchat A video posted by Snapchat ChristineCoen (@ccnutrifit) on
I’m not talking about food that grows in a box on the shelf and claims it’s the next best health fad. If a product has to convince you it’s healthy, it’s not the best choice.
Something interesting I recently learned is that serotonin, the neurotransmitter that is directly connected to “the feeling of happy” and is known to be low in those with depression, is 95% produced in the gut! There are so many causes for gut health problems out there, but it is SO common these days. If your gut is not functioning right or being fed foods that promote its health, serotonin production is decreased!
Now, in addition to personal training one-on-one in NYC, I create online nutrition and fitness plans for women who want to learn how to discover their inner strength through lifting and to empower them to become better versions of themselves in all aspects of life. These programs are for people who are starting their health journey, whether they are currently suffering with depression or anxiety (or have in the past) or are brand new in fitness and want to learn how to workout right and lift weights.
Contact Info and Short Bio for Christine
Christine is a NYC-based high-intensity personal trainer and registered dietitian. What gets her out of bed every morning is a good cup of coffee and the desire to help women learn how to discover their inner strength through lifting in the gym. When she’s not training, she’s ballroom dancing, reading, playing in Central Park or spending time with loved ones. You can read her Wonder Woman Manifesto here.