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How running can relieve anxiety
Lessons from Scott Douglas's 'Running Is My Therapy'
“One foot in front of the other. Repeat as often as necessary to finish.”
— Haruki Murakami
The last time I remember feeling a week like the one we’ve all just experienced was the Monday after September 11, 2001. I was in Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport, waiting to board a flight to Chicago, where I was working on a two-month assignment for my job at the time.
A few days earlier, I had driven home to Atlanta with one of my co-workers, as there were no flights in the air those first few days after the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
But on Monday, planes were flying again. So I headed down to the airport to board the flight that had been booked for me weeks earlier; Hartsfield, normally a place bustling with people scrambling to make their flights, was eerily calm and quiet.
After I made it to the gate for my flight, I waited for a pair of my co-workers, who were scheduled to travel with me back to Chicago for the week. Only one of them showed.
When I asked him where our colleague was, he told me, “I don’t think he can make it today.”
“Why not?” I asked.
Our third colleague had made it all the way down to the airport, parked his car and brought his bags inside. He’d checked in at the ticket counter and was about to go through security. But when he looked at the metal detectors, the weight of what had happened less than a week earlier overcame him.
“It was all too much,” my co-worker said. “He told me, ‘I just can’t get on a plane right now.’”
I understood, and so did my co-worker. It was all too much. There was a part of me that questioned why were going back to work at all. A big part, in fact. We needed time to process what had happened, to take a breath and think about how to respond, how to feel about it.
Nevertheless, we got on our plane and flew back to Chicago that day. I can’t remember if there was a moment when things clicked and the anxiety I felt after the attacks began to subside. All I know is that, in time, I did begin to feel okay again.
This past week has brought all that back. (Maybe for you, too.) It’s also reminded me of a book I turn to from time to time when I need a reminder of the impact running has on my own psyche, how it can help me look at things in a new perspective.
In it, Douglas explores how running can improve our mental health — by promoting greater blood flow and creating new brain cells (which may in fact “rewire” our brains), by reducing inflammation, and by keeping the brain’s system for responding to stress well regulated and in balance.
Particularly interesting to me — especially lately — is the book’s third chapter, titled “How Running Helps People With Anxiety.”
Heather Johnson, a woman Douglas interviewed for the chapter, described her anxiety in a way I bet many of us can relate to:
“The South Portland, Maine, resident was on a plane that was delayed for hours in a snowstorm. That triggered her first panic attack. ‘I was so scared, and I couldn’t understand what was happening inside my body,’ she says. ‘I stood up and slapped my own face, because that’s what they do in the movies to bring someone back to reality.’ Johnson walked off the flight and couldn’t be talked back on. ‘I had a few more of these types of situations, and then I started to fear the fear of these situations.’”
The question, of course, is: how can running help?
Running helps with ‘anxiety sensitivity’
One of the most intriguing things Douglas discovered was a study that tested whether regular exercise helps with anxiety sensitivity — in other words, how your body interprets the sensations associated with anxiety, like increased heart rate and breathing.
Experiencing those sensations is like experiencing anxiety, which gives your body and brain a chance to rehearse what they feel like — and respond differently, Johnson said:
“Running has been instrumental in pushing me into situations that trigger the same symptoms as a panic attack. It gives me ample opportunity to employ the skills necessary to abate negative self-talk, confront the fear of bodily symptoms (like racing heart, feelings of fatigue, etc.), and enjoy the moment.”
Running makes us focus on what’s in front of us
All too often, when I get worked up with anxiety it’s from piling problem on top of problem on top of problem. And then adding a few more on top of that.
A run gives us a way to push all that aside and focus only on the thing that’s right in front of us — even if it’s only temporarily, clinical psychologist Laura Fredendall told Douglas:
“When we’re overwhelmed with anxiety and depression, shifting from the big picture — all the frustrations, worst-case scenario thinking — to the small, in-the-moment task of doing something that approaches a goal, like running a four-mile loop with two hills, will kick off a positive feedback loop that continues throughout the run and takes our thinking and emotions out of the trench of negativity.”
Running does the hard part for us
When I have a lot on my mind, one thing I love about going for a run is that my body works out the things that are bothering me, almost without me having to think it all through. When I’m done with the run, I feel better and don’t really know why.
Douglas’s running partner Meredith Anderson said she experiences this too:
“More often than not, when I come back from a run by myself whatever thoughts were nagging at me aren’t there anymore, and I didn’t do a ton of work to get there. It’s not like I was doing a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy and challenging those negative thoughts. It was the running that made the difference.”
It’s not that we erase troubling thoughts when we run, Douglas adds — but we do get clarity on them:
“When I’m running, the thoughts come in and out, and I’m not worried. I can think about things objectively. Things that I’m thinking are a huge deal I realize aren’t a big deal in the scheme of things.”
A single run helps, but consistent running helps even more
As Johnson told Douglas, running can free our minds from ruminating endlessly:
“Running is the best cure for the swirling thought-storm inside my head. I can literally start a run where my head is buzzing the entire time, bouncing from one thought, problem, conversation, to the other, but by the end, it disappears. It’s how I resolve my internal conflicts or work out problems.”
That can bring long-lasting benefits, he adds — when we stick with it. From the neurotransmitters that produce that pleasurable sensation we feel at the end of a run, to the changes that happen in our circulatory systems — that keep more oxygenated blood going into our brains’ prefrontal cortex — we get the most benefit when we consistently experience them.
Bear in mind, we’re all different. Each of our bodies and brains are unique; I want to be careful not to oversell anything here.
But I do think running can at least be a band-aid for us in difficult times, and help us practice mental habits that can help us for a lifetime — a skill that’s never been more useful than it is right now.
How about you? What works for you? I’d love to know. 😃
Our training plan for this week
This week, we add a mile to our weekly Saturday long run — ready for eight miles?
Thursday, March 3 — 4-5 miles/40-50 minutes
Saturday, March 5 — 8 miles/80 minutes
Sunday, March 6 — 2-3 miles/20-30 minutes
Tuesday, March 8 — 5-6 miles/50-60 minutes
Let me know how it’s going for you and if you have any questions about our training together. Good luck!