How Running Becomes Therapy
“How do you run so far?”
“Don’t you get bored?”
Two questions I can safely say I have been asked a LOT. The first one is highly complex and has a very long, physiological answer. I suppose the real question then, and the answer to the second one in the process would be “Why do you run so far?” – So I’ll have a go at that one…
I have always suffered with social anxiety in particular settings. There are specific social environments I am just not comfortable with. I’d struggle to put a description to it; there are I guess just certain groups of people and certain personalities that if I’m surrounded by, my brain simply refuses to function normally and I can feel panic setting in.
I’ve never done well with ‘alpha’ type personalities for example. I don’t know why; my brain just tries to shut itself down for some reason and it’s a real conscious effort to stay focused and ironically try to act ‘normal’.
Growing up, I found certain ways to vale and disguise this somewhat. As a child, I would cover it up by being hyperactive and deliberately naughty. However, this then becomes less of an option when you hit teenage years, and so consequently I spent a few years as a social recluse; not really speaking to anyone.
In my adult years, I discovered I could use alcohol to keep the social anxiety demons at bay. It was during my time at Bradford University when I first fully managed to discover my own personality using this method, and was even vaguely ‘popular’ in certain circles. I never thought that could happen!
When I first tried my hand at running back in 2010, or more specifically, when I first tried my feet on a treadmill; I couldn’t help but notice a similar anxiety reducing effect, despite not being very good at it. What I was looking at here was a game changer!
How running is a bit like therapy
Like a lot of things; you can break down running into two distinct types, and two distinct types of runner. There are those who find their favourite ‘distance’ and try to get faster at it, and those who find their favoured ‘pace’ and try to run further with it. You can speak to almost any runner about this and they know which one of these architypes they are, and often answer very quickly as well.
I think many of us now are vaguely aware that running releases endorphins in the brain, which is how it makes us feel good. Running faster is a bit like an intense, quick adrenaline hit, whereas running for longer feels more like a slower release of feel-good chemicals. Either way, running freely and uninhibited by injury is a proven dopamine accelerator and the neurotransmitter behaviour in the brain caused from running is actually not hugely dissimilar to the effects of heroine believe it or not. Ever wondered where the term ‘runners high’ comes from? So you can see how some of us runners can sound a little addicted at times. I’m sure if there wasn’t such a stress to the body in getting to this point, we’d probably all be exercising more.
Well I am definitely in the latter of these two running groups. Just as soon as I could run a 10k, I wanted to be able to run half marathons. To me, it was a case of ‘the further, the better!’ It was only a matter of time and perseverance before I was trying my hand (or feet, again) at marathons and ultras; to the point where running became like therapy to me and a total mind-cleansing activity. It was like the longer I was out there running, the longer time I had to myself.
I could set off for a run with worries and concerns on my mind, but they would be gone until I got back; put on hold until further notice. It’s extremely difficult to continue worrying about something when you’re out running. Furthermore (unless this is just me), I think due to the mild physical stress you’re placing on your body, it seems somehow to allow you to concentrate on one thing at a time a lot better; quite often resulting in problems being resolved in your mind.
I also like how when I’m running a long enough distance by myself in the hills, with no crowds of people surrounding me; I have no working, OR social obligations to worry about. I’m free to think about whatever I like. If I want to just daydream or be generally vacant, I can do that. Or, if I happen to want to think about money, or the things that are stressing me out that day, I can do that too; only now more objectively. It’s like I’m looking at things from a different perspective or seeing myself in the third person. Everything’s a little clearer and easier to make decisions here.
The bottom line is, it’s all about getting control of those hormones, and exercise is such an under-utilised method of doing this in our impatient, technology dependant society. It is of course easy to see why (I’ve been there), when in contrast, reaching for food, alcohol or medication of the tablet variety offers a much more immediate self-gratification with no physical stress to the body in the process; but when you take a look at the long term effects, I think exercise is a much better way of keeping our heads in check.
So that, in essence is how I have learnt to manage my mild introversion and social anxieties over the years. I am now fairly happy putting myself in these social environments I know will make me uncomfortable, because I am confident that afterwards, I can go for a long walk or run to recharge my batteries, unclutter my mind, reset and be better able to sleep at night for it.
No two people are wired completely the same however. That is how ‘I’ deal with my own personal demons. Some people in contrast are social animals and unwind better in company. For these people there are running clubs and other social events. This is what I find so utterly amazing about such a simple, unadorned sport with little cost attached to it, and why I would recommend anyone suffering from any mind ailment; depression, stress or any of those horrible feelings of losing control to give running (or indeed any sport) a decent chance.