Whilst a certain amount of stress is a natural part of every day life, I’ve always been something of a excessive worrier. Despite the fact that I was pretty young when I first came to acknowledge that I probably do worry somewhat more than is normal, or indeed, healthy, it was only last year that I was actually diagnosed with anxiety. For me the diagnosis came as something of a relief. Clearly I had been struggling for a while, and whilst it didn’t change anything, being able to attach a label to it went some way to make me feel a little more rational and in enabling me to be kinder and more sympathetic to myself.
Why am I telling you all this? Well…because last week was mental health awareness week, because anxiety is pretty common (1 in 10 people will suffer with a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ at some point in their life.) and because, at least for me, anxiety and running can go hand in hand. Of course, everyone’s experience of anxiety will be different, there is no universal cure, and what works for me may not work for you (although there is considerable scientific evidence to back up the positive impact exercise can have on those suffering with anxiety or depression) but speaking personally, running has improved my confidence, reduced my anxiety, and in many ways, changed my life.
I was ambushed into signing up for my first 10k, and taking my initial baby steps in to the daunting world of running, when I was feeling at my lowest. At a time when I’d lost my sense of purpose and self-worth, running gave me something to get up for in the mornings. From initially being unable to run a kilometre, the gradual improvement I started to see began to rebuild my confidence and give me back my self belief. I ran my first ever 10k 3 months later in 1hour and 2 minutes, and I was hooked, desperate to complete a sub hour 10k.
I completed my sub hour 10k several months later and wish I could tell you that from then on I have not looked back. However, this wouldn’t be entirely true. My last half marathon was a disaster, and I completed a mud run several weeks ago whilst unwell, which resulted in me vomiting my guts up before the final obstacle. However, despite setbacks, running has given me more than I ever could have imagined it would. Most importantly it gives me freedom, and headspace and for a short while forget about the worries of life.
On a day to day basis, running is amazing for me. I don’t know many people who thrive whilst being cooped up in an office 40 hours a week, but I certainly don’t. At the end of long day, sometimes I’m feeling exhausted and putting on my trainers and forcing myself out the front door is a struggle, but more often than not I’m raring to go. And on the occasions I’m not, by the time I’m a mile or two down the road I’m already confident I made the right choice. After a long and hard day at work, running makes me feel better. Simple as. Not only is it my escape, it leaves me well and truly exhausted and almost certain of a good night’s sleep. (Something which for an anxiety sufferer can be hard to come by.)
Running has made me a stronger person. Not only do I have to be disciplined, in terms of training, I have to ensure I get enough rest, eat properly, and limit my drinking (These days I’ve all but given up alcohol altogether.) Running, as well as the obvious physical benefits, has helped me take better care of myself.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are still times when running really does feel truly terrible, but in persevering through those times, and pushing yourself another 2, 5, 10 miles or more when a mile back you were certain you were going to give up, makes you believe in yourself and your ability to achieve the seemingly impossible. If running can’t beat me, anxiety won’t either.
It is certainly not all plain sailing and I do experience significant ‘lows’ even with running. Sometimes, when I’m feeling anxious, I become almost overwhelmed by negativity. In my mind I am not fit enough, not fast enough, not strong enough; I’m never going to get better; it’s all hopeless. These thoughts are not rational, they’re not even truly me, but they are difficult to ignore. The only thing to do is to attempt to block them out and to recognise that in continuing to put one foot in front of the other and keeping going you are slowly improving. I focus on my surroundings and nature, on my breathing, and on one foot hitting the ground after the other, and try to lose myself in the repetition that.
Somewhat paradoxically, when I’m at my most anxious, I’m usually itching to head outside and to run off my stress. However for me, when I’m stressed I struggle for breath, so much so, that when I’m feeling at my worst, I am unable to run 5km, because I simply cannot draw in a deep breath. Of course, this has a massive effect on me mentally making me feel, more useless, unfit and underachieving than ever. At which point, ironically, running, which is supposed to be my escape and release becomes just another stress in my life.
This is still a very real frustration of mine and one that I face on a semi-regular basis. However, I’m gradually learning to accept that this won’t last forever. In a few days I’ll be feeling calmer again, be able to breath more regularly, and be back to completing longer runs effortlessly. (Okay, not effortlessly!)
I’m far from having all the answers, and I still struggle, both with my running and with my anxiety. But I’ve come a long way with both of them, further than I ever thought I could, and I’m certainly not about to let either of them defeat me.