• Jenn Sarfaty

Anxiety is my Running Partner

Updated: Mar 8, 2019

The idea of running as therapy is no new concept. In fact, I’ve heard so much about the so-called feel-good runner’s high that I began to discredit it as nothing different from what I feel after I lift weights. (Not to mention, at the time I didn’t enjoy running, and most runners I knew didn’t enjoy lifting weights, so I had no reason to believe these feelings weren’t interchangeable). But now I run 4 times a week, and I have been dare-I-say religious about it since the beginning of October 2018. That’s almost 6 months of doing something that I once strongly identified with hating, voluntarily, for the majority of my week. This has become a supplemental therapy for me to say the least. (Keyword: supplemental! I am the last person in this entire world that will promote skipping out on traditional talk therapy as the first line of defense).

Let me backtrack - I never ran. I avoided it in all capacity. My ankles were so weak that even when I decided to try out for sports that required more running than I was used to, they’d give out on me. And this wasn’t due to being lazy or unfit necessarily. In fact, I learned to LOVE strength training and plyometrics. Give me burpees over running a mile any day. But this doesn’t mean I never tried to run. Aside from genuinely hating it, I knew its place as a valuable gym warm-up or a way to get anger out instead of punching in a wall. (Side note: remind me to share about my very valid teenage anger problems that were misdiagnosed as a bullshit title that upwards of 10% of children are labeled with on too regular of a basis). Anywayyyy, I would muscle through a 15-minute run, faster than I was conditioned to be able to handle, frustrated that I never could do it straight through.

Of course, I hated it. It was a punishment of some sort. And I didn’t know what I was doing. I looked at running on a basic level - essential putting one foot in front of the other, a little faster than I was accustomed to - without considering the fundamentals of the sport. You know, building a base, maintaining proper posture, I don’t know, breathing? I’d put headphones in and play my music strategically loud enough so I wouldn’t have to hear myself out of breath. Of course, I hated it.

Cue October 2018, a friend of mine was beginning a program very similar to a Couch to 5k program and encouraged me to participate with her. Long story short, I took it seriously. Before I knew it, I was running 30 minutes straight with energy left to do more if I needed to. Shortly after, I ran my first hour without stopping - something I was convinced I’d never be able to do. It was clear to me that something had to have changed for my body and most importantly, my mind to have supported me in this feat. So, how has running become a form of therapy for me? Here are the key takeaways:

- The act of running normalizes many of the physical sensations akin to a panic attack.

An experience I know intimately - cold sweat, elevated heart rate, heavy breathing, chest tightness, lightheadedness, dry mouth, and an upset stomach, all the while being SURE you’re in immediate and severe danger - a panic attack. Similarly, if you are a distance runner of really any distance, you may see some parallels in the sensations above from at least one of your runs before. For me, being someone who gave a hard “no” to any steady-state cardio, this encompasses my experience for most of my runs. Although I have learned techniques and increased my cardiovascular fitness, at least some of these creep up on my 4 times a week sweaty dates with myself. But the upside - I have CONTROL of my body and experience in this. Which brings me to my next point…

- Running gives you a sense of control over your body as well as refines the conversation you have with it.

As mentioned, I’m still often out of breath during my runs, but what keeps me from spiraling into a panic from it is truly and fully feeling in control of my experience. If you or anyone close to you struggles with anxiety (not the “I’m nervous to speak in front of people” or “What if no one will like me?” anxiety - the crippling “I don’t have control of anything that happens to me” or “If it doesn’t go to plan, I am unsafe” anxiety), you’ll likely know that the root of the majority of anxiety is the perception of lack of control over a situation. But in my experience, there’s very little in the world that you have more control over than you do for running. Running, for me at least, is putting myself in a position to drop into my body to become more in tune with what it needs. Although I could have perceived running as a means to essentially put myself in that feeling of danger I was once so accustomed to avoiding, I instead acknowledged I could slow down, I could stop, I could speed up, I could change my breathing, and above all, it *wasn’t* my mind taking over.

I’m not going to lie, it took a lot for my mind to get used to this. There was experimenting with loud music over my breathing and runs without headphones at all, and running so slow that it was boring and so fast that I couldn’t keep it up. Through all of this, I have miraculously trained my brain to KNOW that I’m not in danger when those physical sensations come up and I KNOW I’m in control of this experience for myself. How’s that for some self-reflection and internal conversation?

- Running can push your limits of safety and comfortability with change, if you let it.

Another anxiety trigger for me is safety. I do not feel inherently safe, especially when my outside environment is unfamiliar or I sense the slightest sensation of danger. In fact, the ability to run from danger was one of my primary motivators is giving running another shot. But ironically enough, I have found myself alone in places I’ve never been before just to get a run in. I’m not saying I don’t leave my house without a friend, or I never go anywhere new otherwise, but the idea of running aimlessly through a trail I’ve never been to, with little idea of where I parked my car, without my phone on me is indeed a new experience. So running has given me the confidence in my endurance for keeping me safe all the while helping me forget about that visceral need to have a getaway plan for sometimes hours at a time. This thought is still present, don’t get me wrong, and I’m still carefully aware of my environment, but just the act of running has relinquished me from some of the restriction I have had on myself around the concept of safety.

Running isn’t for everybody. But it also can be for everybody. I didn’t think it was for me, but in a short 6 months, it has changed my life in ways it has never even been sold to me. Sure, I’ve experienced the infamous “runner’s high,” and my body has changed accordingly to the number of miles I run a week, but nothing is as valuable as the relief of anxiety it has provided me.

If you’re interested in giving it a go, for the sake of your mental (and physical) health, I urge you to give it a fair shot. If you’re interested in seeing the beginner-friendly running program that I had started with, please don’t hesitate to reach out, I’d be happy to share it with you. ~Soon enough I will have it linked on this website~

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