There are a variety of reasons why people run – as exercise, for the challenge, to aid weight loss etc – and when I started running I thought I was doing it simply because I enjoyed it. I’ve given that theory some thought recently and it turns out it’s not quite true. Yes, I thoroughly enjoy running just for the runningness of it, but it helps me mentally too.
This month I am taking part in Runr's Miles For Mind, which is a virtual running event to help raise money for and awareness of mental health, and this week is Mental Health Awareness Week so I thought I'd write a bit about my slightly irksome brain and how running helps it.
Since I was a child I have struggled with anxiety and depression. I don’t know if there’s a particular reason why; I’ve spoken to various doctors but I've never done counselling or therapy to try and pinpoint any possible cause. My worrying, anxiety and occasional bouts of sadness and feelings of being utterly useless have just always been part of what makes me me.
My depression rears its head occasionally but I know its warning signs and oftentimes I can work my way through bad spells quite quickly. However, my anxiety is a different matter. It is a weird beast that manifests itself in a plethora of ways. Major things like palpitations, panic attacks and crying aside, it makes me do strange things like counting lampposts, pigeons and steps (thanks, brain, but my Garmin has that covered) and it makes me do bizarre ‘challenges’ like “I have to put all that washing up away before the kettle boils or else I’ll fail this/lose that/something far too warped to type here will happen”. In my work, it has a very prohibitive, almost destructive effect – it makes me so perfectionist over the glass beads I create, some days I can’t even make any because of it. My health anxiety knows no bounds. I can go from feeling perfectly fine one minute to utterly convincing myself I am dying of some hideous disease the next. I understand the root of this one, though; my health anxiety has been an issue since my mum died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2006.
But the branch of anxiety I can’t figure out is the social one. Social anxiety is an absolute wazzock of a thing. I work alone in a shed all day. Obviously I see my husband, but I don’t see many other people, unless you count the Post Office ladies, people in shops and the Amazon delivery fella. I belong to a local archaeology group and we meet up every few weeks for a couple of hours, and I volunteer at parkrun a couple of times a month, but that’s pretty much my socialising. I don’t have any friends here in Cambridge, and none of my family live here. I’m a friendly person. People often tell me I am funny (they also sometimes say I’m a bit odd but I take that as a compliment) and I spend an awful lot of time wanting to be with other people, doing all those fun friendish things you see people doing on Facebook, but when I get the opportunity to do so, my brain decides it’s like some sort of awful ordeal that it can’t possibly cope with. It tells me it can’t cope by making me want to cancel any social plans, and if I refuse to, it’ll then make me fret and worry about what I’m going to wear, and getting to the place. If I actually get that far, I will have thought up several ways to get out of being there; reasons why I can’t stay longer, or why I have to go home.
One of the worst things my social anxiety does to me is the blushing. At the end of last year I went to an archaeology talk and afterwards there was tea and biscuits and people mingle-chatting. I was introduced to the man who gave the talk and the first couple of minutes of us chatting was fine. Then he asked about the degree I was doing at the time (I’m not now; I withdrew from the course – my stress and anxiety won that one) and as soon as I had to talk about me, I felt that familiar burning sensation in my face and all down my neck and chest. I immediately dropped my eye contact, continued talking, but focused on the custard cream sat on the edge of the cup and saucer I was holding, instead of the archaeologist’s face. (That sounds like I was supposed to be holding the archaeologist’s face but I can’t be faffed to sort out the grammar to make it not sound like that. Carry on.) I could hear my heart beating in my ears and after about forty-five seconds I could feel my face fire dying down and I was able to look the man in the eyes again. But that was that. I finished that conversation and made my excuses and went home. It made no sense - it wasn't like the archaeologist was Indiana Jones levels of phwoar or anything. My blushing thing happens all the time, from speaking to the lady who works in Budgens to dealing with charity people who knock on the door wanting me to sign up to giving three quid a month to help sad donkeys. Sometimes it even happens when I am talking to family and friends.
My social anxiety is illogical because I like being with other people – I like having a laugh and making other people laugh, but the anxiety department of my brain holds me back from doing fun stuff with other humans.
So where does the running come in? Well, it simply shuts my brain up. When I run, I am absolutely in the running moment. Any worries or anxious feelings are silenced for the time that I am out there running. It’s just me, my music, and the steady, rhythmic feeling of the pounding of my feet on the pavement. It’s almost meditative. Not in a bong-a-gong and light-a-candle way, but in a making my brain calm way. And the feeling remains after a run. For a good few hours afterwards I feel relaxed and unruffled.
I’ve only been running for a relatively short while but its positive effects keep on surprising me. A couple of days ago I did a running-related thing that seemed like an I-will-never-do-that thing a few months ago – I emailed the local running club about joining. I reckon I can cope with an hour a week of being with other runners doing running stuff. If not, I can just run away, right? And the bonus is, if I have a blushy moment I can just pass it off as a sweaty red face. I jest (sort of) but I think I can do this.
So yes, the more I run, the more of a positive effect it has on my non-running time. It could be endorphins but it might just also be that running is helping to build my confidence. Whatever, I am so grateful to running and for the way it helps sort my mind out.
I don’t often talk about my mental health issues because putting it out there makes me feel a little bit uneasy, and I don’t want my anxiety and depression to define me; they are just a part of what makes me the person I am, same as my messy hair, my gappy teeth and my dire navigational abilities. But it’s really important to speak about these things. Whenever I read about other people’s mental health, especially stuff by anxious folk, it makes me feel a bit better about my brain because I know I’m not alone. Other people experience these things and can relate to them, and that makes me feel a little less down about myself. If you’re struggling with mental health in any way, please speak to someone - just talking about the way you feel can be a huge relief.
Mind - the mental health charity
Moodzone - an NHS page about stress, anxiety and depression
AnxietyUK - a UK charity helping people with all kinds of anxiety issues