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What Running Taught Me About Coping With Anxiety at Work

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I used to run track competitively in high school and college. I put so much pressure on myself that I would get monumentally nervous, whether it was a big or small race. Races were typically on Saturdays, and the nerves would start building on the Mondays before. The frantic thoughts got stronger and louder with each passing weekday until eventually I got to Saturday morning, fatigued and full of dread. While warming up, the nerves would reach a loud crescendo. I must’ve eventually spoken to a teammate about it (I wish I remembered who) because finally I got some advice that took the edge off this problem.

The person gave me a trick that sounds too simple to work, but it did for me: focus on what you’re doing physically to distract yourself from all the mental noise. For example, tuning into how my legs were moving as I lengthened my stride; noticing how it felt to breathe in and out, deeply pulling the air into my lungs; feeling the muscles in my biceps tighten as I pumped my arms to pick up speed.

This helped tremendously.

Once I got grounded in my body, I was able to focus on the strategy of the race — determining when was the best time to increase my speed to pass other girls in the race as I ran. I wound up being able to hold my anxiety at bay long enough to have a successful track and cross country career at the Division I level. I’m so grateful to whomever gave me this trick. I so wish I could remember who it was so I could thank them!

Now, as an adult, I realize I use the same tactic when anxiety clangs into my workday. I switch my thoughts so I am focusing intently on whatever it is I’m doing – any little thing! It could be how my typing feels on my fingertips as I clack-clack-clack away at the keyboard, or simply how my feet feel in my shoes. Even focusing on the intricate details of each task can help — like, how can I write this email as kindly as possible? How can I creatively solve this problem my boss is asking me to handle?


I don’t know why it works, but delving into the details calms my anxiety. As long as whatever it is I’m focusing on can take up my full attention, my anxiety is finally, if only for one minute at a time, silenced. But that’s all I need, because I can get through my workday one beautiful, silent minute at a time.

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Thinkstock image by efetova

Originally published: June 2, 2017
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