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Running and Anxiety – Eight Tips for Anxious Runners

Running makes you feel good, there’s no denying that. It can be used to help improve and maintain mental health. One of the conditions it is particularly beneficial for is anxiety and with around 40 million adults in the United States and over 25 per cent of Europeans experiencing anxiety in any given year, it’s vital that we make running and all the benefits it brings, accessible to everyone.Let’s look at what anxiety is and learn how running can help reduce it.

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.

‘Running can be a great contribution to the improvement of generalised anxiety disorder, especially as part of holistic treatment’. Says Clinical Psychologist and Psychotherapist Horst von Bohlen. ‘For acute phobias and panic attacks, I do not recommend running alone, but always in the company of someone who knows your situation and how to care for you in the event of an acute attack’.

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.

And here are 8 tips for anxious runners:

1.      Be honest with yourself – Take time to reflect on how you are feeling, why you want to run and what is stopping you. Working out ‘your why’ will help you to stay motivated. Will it make you feel fitter, calmer, bring you joy? Make a list and keep looking back at it when your motivation is lacking. Then work out what your main barriers are. It will help you to identify steps you can take to overcome them. If it’s fear of going out alone then it’s time to find a running buddy. If you’re afraid of having a panic attack, you can gradually return to walking first, with the help of a therapist, to make you feel more confident. Holistic therapy with psychotherapy and exercise sessions is the ideal choice.Be honest with yourself and put your problem solving head on. If you can’t find the solutions alone then ask a friend to help you.

2.      Set your goals. It’s crucial that you set realistic and achievable goals for yourself. You need to succeed to feel the positive feedback which will lift you. You might have an ultimate goal of running a 5k or a marathon but you need to break it down into tiny chunks that you can add to your daily calendar. This may begin with getting as far as two steps from your front door and then five steps and then ten. It doesn’t matter, all forward progress is good. 

3.      Don’t overthink it. Give your brain too long and it will have talked you out of running. You will have come up with a list of reasons why not going will be best for you. The reasons will feel valid and justifiable at the time. Find the time slot that works most easily for you. One tip is to go early. Prepare your running kit the night before and put it on and get out of the door before your brain has had time to engage. Just take the first step. Tell yourself you will just go for five minutes and see how you feel. You will be surprised that once you are out, you will feel able to go a little further than you expected.

4.      Use distraction. With anxiety, simple thoughts can quickly snowball and get out of control. Why not try listening to music, a podcast or an audio book while you run? – obviously making sure it’s safe to do so and perhaps choosing a quieter, traffic-free route. You might use relaxing music to help calm your breathing or a funny podcast that makes you laugh. Experiment and find what works for you.

5.      Get company. Running with friends has so many benefits. Setting a time to run with them means you are more likely to go. Having someone by your side can make you feel more secure and relaxed. It may be that you feel best in a group rather than with one person; everyone is different. Choose someone that you can be yourself with. Talking about your feelings is always easier when you are side by side, out in nature. You may just want to continue with the distraction and talk about everything except anxiety and that’s fine too.

6.      Use positive talk. Be your own cheerleader. Avoid criticising yourself. Always compliment yourself and celebrate what you have achieved, even if it’s only a small win. Imagine you are talking to your friend, speak to yourself as you would speak to them. Replace, ‘You’re rubbish, you’re going so slowly, you can’t do this’ with ‘You’re doing great, look how far you’ve come, you can do this’.  Push out those negative thoughts and replace them with positive self-talk, it can make all the difference.

7.      Try mindful running. Running mindfully and being in the present can help you to enjoy a run, it can calm you if your thoughts are rushing and it can act as a form of meditation. Read up on how to do it but as a basic start, run with your senses. Really take time to notice what is around you and focus on what you can see, hear and feel as you run. The peaceful feeling will stay with you for some time after you get home too.

8.      Add in some yoga. Yoga is a great stretching exercise for runners which can give you confidence in your own body but it can be much more than that. The breathing techniques will serve you well as you run but also help you to take control of your breathing if it becomes shallow and rapid as a result of anxiety. You can learn it in the privacy of your own home with online videos if you don’t feel comfortable in a class.

Take things at your own pace. Celebrate all your successes and remember that the path always has lots of ups and downs so don’t beat yourself up if you have a bad day and don’t meet your goal. There’s always something you can learn from a failure that makes you more likely to succeed the next time.

Dr. Juliet McGrattan

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