Using Running to Combat Anxiety

Anxiety is a little bit like a tidal wave. If you can stave it off early enough, you can save yourself a lot of damage. But if the waters rise to a certain point, it can make you feel like you’re already drowning, with nothing to alleviate the symptoms except time. 

There is little I can do to control my anxiety. Once it starts, I cannot automatically make it stop. But what I can do is learn to manage it proactively. For me, running has been a little like a practice ground for managing anxiety. If you can find ways to work on managing your anxiety within a safe space, it will help with managing this condition across all other contexts.  

Many people do not like running or they do not believe they are capable of becoming a runner. But I think this belief is, in part, rooted in the normal anxiety that is incited when someone first begins running. 

Anytime you expose yourself to strenuous exercise, you begin a vigorous exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide as your working muscles require more and more oxygen to perform the work. This exchange can leave you feeling breathless. This experience of breathlessness triggers our fight or flight response. 

Your mind may begin to shout panicked, negative thoughts:

I can’t breathe.
I can’t do this.
I am not a runner.
I am dying.
I am not strong enough.

These are doubts, fueled by a natural response of anxiety. If you are prone to anxiety, they might be apt to spiral even more out of control. Even as an experienced runner, I sometimes still feel this way when I have really pushed myself while running. But I use the experience to practice calming myself and rediscovering a rhythm. 

I slow down, I manage my breath, and I correct my posture so my body is poised to take in as much oxygen as possible. I talk back to the negative thoughts. I replace them with logical affirmations:

This is hard.
But I can do it.
It hurts.
But I can slow down.
I can try again. 

As I learn to manage the physical response, I also learn to manage the anxiety and emotional response. Most importantly, I keep going. I find that I really can do this, after all, and it is this experience that builds my confidence for future runs. Barring any serious medical conditions that prevent you from strenuous exercise, anyone can directly implement and benefit from running. You don’t have to be the fastest runner or run marathon distances in order to experience this. 

Running also offers a great metaphor for challenges we face in life. You don’t even have to be a runner to understand that hills are awful. Except, when you choose to reframe your view of hills and instead consider them conditioners for your strength and ability, you change the association you have with them. They are still awful. They still strain our muscles and take our breath away. But little by little, we begin to see and appreciate the gifts they also offer us by making us better, and once we learn to crest them, we are rewarded with a celebratory downhill release. 

Perhaps the most important gift running offers is the confidence it naturally builds over time. The key is to start small, set realistic goals, so you can experience some success. Once you experience this success, you can take it with you wherever you go. This is true in running and it is true in proactively managing anxiety across all applications. 

From the stressful meeting at work to the complicated family dynamics of a holiday dinner, wherever your personal anxiety is triggered, you can practice the same techniques you do in running: to calm the body, still the mind, and rediscover your rhythm. Just as you build confidence in your ability to run efficiently, you will also build confidence in your ability to face and manage your anxiety. This is done little by little, with intentional effort, and before you know it, you’re on your way to running your anxiety, instead of it always running you.  

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