5 tips to overcome the anxious run
It is well researched that running, and other forms of exercise such as walking, especially outside, are beneficial for mental health. Going for a run or a brisk walk can shift stuck emotions, release feel good endorphins and help you process the day ahead or behind you. One thing that active movement can help with is managing and controlling feelings of anxiety. This could be using the time to mentally and physically work through thoughts about a future event, such as rehearsing a conversation or future situation, or maybe releasing worries or restlessness using the rhythm of regular movement. But what happens if you run to support your mental health and to manage anxiety, and this anxiety then shifts to the act of running itself, and becomes the anxious run.
Anxiety is a fluid sensation which can shift in frequency and intensity. It can range from worries about a particular situation or event, to an overwhelming sense of dread and fear. These feelings can affect concentration and focus, as well leading to restlessness and changes in eating and sleeping, and other physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, shaking, headaches and muscle tension. We all experience anxious thoughts, sensations and feelings to some degree about something. Sometimes runners who use their running for therapeutic purpose to manage their anxiety finds this shifts to the thought of going for a run. It shifts to the act of running itself, and some of the physical symptoms of anxiety can be compounded rather than alleviated.
You may not know what is triggering your anxiety, and this can lead to withdrawal from social contacts and activities. You do less of what previously worked for you. The 'what if' thoughts may centre on the run itself, or leaving the house or even when getting ready. Commonly they centre on not being able to breathe when running; thoughts of getting out of breath and associated panic. They may be about bumping into other people or being seen, or feelings of self-confidence, or even thoughts that 'this doesn't help me anymore'. Many ruminations begin about the run and what is created is the anxious run.
This can then create a double bind of negative thinking and self-blame; 'Running used to help me and now this doesn't work anymore; what did I do wrong?' And a common method to manage anxiety creating situations is to avoid them.
So what may help:
1. Thoughts and language: Try to identify your triggers if possible and break it down into the details. Is it the thought of going outside or is it something that may happen when out running. Do you have thoughts which create panic about a physical sensation. Try to focus and be specific to keep the anxiety in your control. Using language can help this through using 'I have' rather than 'I am'. "I am anxious" is a label about your identity as a person, about who you are. Try to shift this to "I have anxiety about....." and naming the answer. This re-frames the anxiety to something you are currently experiencing. It may not be easy to do yourself, and ask if someone will help map this out for you.
2. Body awareness: Notice what is going in your body at the time, especially in the breath. You may notice shaking, trembling or jelly legs. Notice and name these sensations, try to describe rather than explain and analyse. This is not easy but try with one sensation to begin with, focusing on what it felt like, how long it lasted and when it passed.
3. Visualisation and memory: Visualise a time when going for a run or walk has helped you work through a particular situation. Think about the positive thoughts, feelings and emotions from this experience. Did the endorphins flow at the time, did it help you make a decision about something, or maybe it felt great to run and be outside in the rain or cold, and then warm up again. Were the change in physical sensations notable and comforting. This can be anything which makes you smile as you are thinking. Keep hold of this smile.
4. Other tools in your kit: Be kind to yourself and be curious. It's OK to have a break or a rest from running for therapeutic purpose. It doesn't mean it's not working all the time, just not right now. It maybe that other self help or professional options are the best course of action at the moment . Running and purposeful movement can be an effective way for managing general anxiety and be a part of a toolkit - sometimes other tools in your kit work better.
5. Be the teacher and narrator: Finally, talk it through someone else with you in the role of teacher or coach. Talk them through the benefits you have previously experienced from running and movement, and what you have gained along the way. It maybe an option and if possible (physically and geographically) to take them out for a run/walk as a beginner. Remember how you began, what did you wear, how far did you go., how did it feel during and afterwards. Through offering support and encouragement you are helping each other. Teaching others through sharing your tips can increase your self-esteem and confidence and create a narrative of your journey and what you have achieved so far.
Feel free to share what has worked for you too.