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How I Realized Running Could Help With My Anxiety


Editor's Note

Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

I have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Throughout the years, I’ve developed a variety of methods as a way to cope with my stress. One of the activities that’s helped me cope better than most is running.

I’ve been running on and off since high school. I never ran track or cross country. My recreational pastime took place, mostly, on a treadmill in my childhood home’s living room. I didn’t run to lose weight, break personal records or prepare for any races; I just ran because it made me feel good. Looking back, I think it gave the nervous energy my body naturally creates a way to escape. Running just agreed with me. I liked the movement and, honestly, I liked that I could still watch television while working out.

Fast-forward to 2016 — three years into my latest battle with anxiety and depression. I’m stable but the anxiety tends to get out of hand more often than I’d like. I’m working at a job in Philly. It requires me to travel to different locations a couple times a week. Since the destinations were only ever a mile away from one another, I walked.

One particular day, I was at location #2 and my anxiety was revved up big time. I could feel that I was on the brink of a major anxiety attack. It was time to head back to the office and I was praying I didn’t have an anxiety attack in front of my co-workers. It was raining, which meant I’d have to walk quickly back to my office. The trip back was quick. I walked so fast that I ran out of breath. I was practically jogging. Before I knew it, I was back at my office, out of breath and calm. My anxiety had receded and my mind was clear. If there was any lingering tension in my body, I didn’t notice it. I was relieved to feel relief from my anxiety. It was clear: something about moving fast helped me. At that moment, I decided running would become part of my mental health regimen.

My revelation about exercise isn’t mine alone. Research has shown time and time again; exercise, especially aerobic exercise, can help reduce stress. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), “Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins – chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers – and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress.” ADAA also notes: “Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep and improve self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-anxiety effects.”

I think it’s important to mention that exercise isn’t a cure-all. I’m not one of those people who believes running three miles a day can cure depression, anxiety or any other mental illness. I don’t believe you should flush your antidepressants down the toilet just because you’re engaging in aerobic exercise. What I am saying is that exercise, especially running, has become a crucial element in maintaining my mental health. Antidepressants are another crucial element… just an FYI!

Mental illness is a multifaceted beast. What works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for another. Running works for me. It gives my flight response a chance to act out its wildest dreams. Runs help to clear my mind and release the tension in my chest. Running teaches me to push myself. It allows me to set goals… and crush them. It’s introduced me to inspiring running friends, or “sole sisters” as we call ourselves. Running has given me many gifts but the most important one is determination. Running allows me to keep fighting the battle against my anxiety and it makes me feel like I can win.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog.

Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash