How to Improve Mental Health with Running
May is Mental Health Awareness Month!
I remember the first time I had a panic attack. I was in 7th-grade science class. We were split into groups working on projects. I sat on the floor, scribbling away on the notebook in my lap when my vision blurred and I felt detached from reality. It was like I was on the outside looking in at a stranger’s life. My hands and arms tingled. My breathing became shallow, and I thought I might faint. Stumbling to stand, I mumbled something about needing to use the bathroom to my teacher. I made it to the restroom where I locked myself in a stall until the panic began to subside. It felt like hours.
Though I was an anxiety-ridden child, this was the time I “officially” began my journey recognizing and coping with mental illness. I was diagnosed with panic disorder, anxiety disorder, and depression. I began therapy and medication, and they helped keep the beasts at bay through some tumultuous teenage years.
I wish I could tell you everything has been calm since then, but that isn’t the truth. I’ve gone on and off medications for years, fought to falsely convince myself I could “snap out of it,” and tried alternative forms of therapy until the birth of my daughter. And then I fell apart. Postpartum depression nearly took my life. I was lucky to have people who recognized it before I gave into some very dark thoughts. I’ve been at a stable place for the past few years.
Running as Therapy
Although I do believe my brain needs medication to regulate itself and talk-therapy is important, I have another form of therapy that has turned into a lifesaver: running. There are more studies pointing to the fact that exercise, including running, can make a difference for those who have depression. Bloggers and journalists are writing more about how running has helped them.
On mornings when I get a good run in, I find myself so much more at ease and less likely to panic that day. I’m a much more patient mom and have an easier time completing daily tasks. It makes it easier to remind myself of one important fact: depression lies. It lies about what you can and cannot do. It lies to your body about how you feel, because depression can manifest as physical pain and exhaustion.
By no means am I saying running is a way to “fix” depression or anxiety or other mental health issues. I believe these issues aren’t “fixed,” but rather managed. And certainly running will not work for everyone as part of a treatment plan. But something else will.
How to Use Running to Improve Mental Health
If you think running could help with your mental health, there are a few things you may want to keep in mind:
- First, get help from a trained professional, whether it’s a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor, or physician. They are the ones who will be able to help you find what works best for you.
- Set goals, but make them small and manageable. If you’re trying to get a handle on a mental health issue, you have enough on your plate. It may not be the time to commit to large goals like running your first marathon in a few months. Instead, aim for one or two smaller goals that require focus but also allow for some flexibility.
- Make it as easy as possible for you to get out the door or on the treadmill. If you’re a morning runner, set out your clothes the night before. Have your shoes and gear ready. Have your coffee pot on auto-brew, so you have a cup ready for you when you finish.The more prepared you are, the easier it will be to get out of bed on those really tough mornings. At the very least, make an effort to get yourself out the door for even just five minutes. If you still aren’t feeling it after that, go home. It’s okay. You should still be proud of yourself.
- Be gentle with yourself. Some days, I just can’t. I can’t force myself out of bed because I’ve been awake all night worrying. Or maybe I have negative thoughts consuming me: you can’t do this. You aren’t really a runner. You will fail. Logically, I know these thoughts aren’t true, but there are times I’m too tired of fighting them. On those days, I have to remind myself to be kind.There will be better days, and it’s okay that today is not a better day. Do something else to take care of yourself. Brew a cup of tea and snuggle up with a book. Talk with a friend. Watch a few episodes of that TV show everyone is talking about. Who knows? Maybe after some self-care, you’ll feel more like getting that run in.
If you or anyone you know is dealing with feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of self-harm, there IS help. Call 911. Text “START” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Call the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386. Know the signs. Help save a life.