What is anxiety?
Anxiety is exhausting! It is a state of hyper alertness due to acute stress. You might have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response. A threat is perceived and this triggers a sudden cascade of chemicals and hormones to be released in the body, preparing it to either stay and fight or run away. This response is controlled by our autonomic nervous system which means we don’t have conscious control over it. Its function is to ensure our survival. It can help us perform well in races, exams and stressful situations so it can be a good thing.
The problem in anxiety is that what is perceived as a threat is usually not appropriate, it may be completely harmless or exaggerated out of proportion. The result is a racing heart, fast breathing, shaking and a sense of panic and doom in entirely inappropriate situations. It can be a specific thing that triggers the anxiety attack such as being in a supermarket or hearing the phone ring but it may come out of the blue. Equally, whilst some anxiety comes in the form of sudden acute attacks, many people are living with a more constant feeling of worry and self-doubt called generalised anxiety disorder. Anxiety can cause people to restrict their lives hugely to avoid potentially anxiety inducing situations. They often withdraw from people around them and may find it hard to leave their house. It’s important to remember that anxiety and depression often exist together.
How running helps
1. Brain chemical changes. When you exercise, the brain releases a number of feel good chemicals and hormones that give you a sense of wellbeing while you run and for some time afterwards too. The most commonly talked about are the endorphins which bind to the same brain receptors as the drug morphine, bringing a feeling of happiness and reduced sensations of pain. Others less commonly discussed are the endocannabinoids, cannabis-like chemicals in the body which relax and calm you. Prolonged vigorous exercise is particularly effective at triggering the release of our body’s natural feel good chemicals and regular exercise ensures a repeated dose of nature’s anti-anxiety medication.
2. Brain activity shifts. Research from Cologne has shown that when you are involved in endurance sports, the activity in the pre-frontal cortex of your brain reduces. This part of the brain is where emotional stimuli are turned into conscious feelings so longer runs can help to quieten our thoughts. At the same time, the motor cortex that we use to move has increased activity when we run. This part of the brain has a role in planning and logical thinking, partly explaining why we can solve problems and create perspective while we run. Running acts as a reset button for our brain.
3. Confidence building. Running is a perfect activity for challenge setting. If you give yourself a goal to overcome, something that you’re a little afraid of, then when you succeed, it helps to boost your self-confidence. It’s important to make sure that goals are realistic and achievable, failure can be a big knock and backward step to confidence. Rising to challenges in running then makes you more likely to face your fears in other areas of your life.
4. Growing self-esteem. Anxiety often goes hand in hand with poor self-image. Running can help to uncover the true power of the body. Learning to appreciate what it can do helps you to develop a good relationship with your body and to begin to trust it. Being fitter and experiencing a racing heart and fast breathing during running can also help you to tolerate and cope with those symptoms when they’re triggered during anxiety attacks too.
5. More connections. Feeling connected to nature can help to improve mental health and running outdoors certainly does this but being connected to other people is hugely beneficial too. Whether it’s one friend or a whole running club, having others to support you is important. It may be that you run and talk about everything other than your anxiety so it serves as a break and a distraction or it may be that you share your feelings (and often discover others identify with them too), both are beneficial. Knowing that you are not alone can help you feel secure.
These are just some of the ways anxiety can be helped by running. In the next blog we’ll look at practical ways we can help ourselves other runners who are experiencing anxiety.
Dr Juliet McGrattan