Often times on our blogs we talk about how to cope with depression. However, I think it’s also important to address its counterpart—anxiety. Anxiety used to keep me awake at night, forcing me to stress over a phrase that someone said, a look someone gave, scenarios that hadn’t happened yet, and scenarios that would never happen.
The worst part for me, and probably for most of us who deal with this, is that when we’re in the midst of anxiety we can’t stop; our minds get so focused on what is bothering us that we can’t think of anything else. We become trapped in a never-ending cycle until the issue we’re worried about is resolved by our environment, not by ourselves.
I know this all too well because I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember. One of the most memorable examples from my childhood was how I would act during any car ride to a place I hadn’t been before. I would ask the person driving if they had been to the destination before, how many times they had been there, if they knew EXACTLY where they were going, if they had a map (just in case), how much gas we had in miles, how many miles away the destination was from us, and many more questions over and over again. Needless to say, people didn’t enjoy driving me to my soccer games.
As I got older, my anxiety worsened and I realized I had to do something about it. When I looked at the options, I knew that I didn’t want to start medication. Instead, I wanted to see if there was a more natural approach that would help me cope, and luckily there was–running. I know what you’re thinking: “Running? We’ve heard the endorphin facts before.” However, that’s not the point I’m trying to make. While exercise does release endorphins that help us feel good after a workout, running (or exercise in general) does something else — it forces us to take control of the way we think!
When I began running, the only thing I could focus on was pushing past what runners call “the wall.” It’s the moment during exercise when your body becomes fatigued and your brain tells you to stop. In order to keep going, you have to create an internal dialogue and convince yourself to continue.
In those moments, I realized something: the internal dialogue created running mirrors the ones created through anxiety. One part of my brain focuses on the negative, telling me that this is the worst thing possible, while another part tells me to shake it off and keep moving. The only way to continue is to learn to silence the thoughts telling me to “stop” and put all my mental energy into the positive. The only way to push past the wall is to focus and take control of my mind.
The more I’ve run, the better I’ve become at silencing the signals telling me to stop and reinforcing the signals to persevere and not give up. This skill has helped me get a grip on my anxiety. When something triggers worry and anxiety now, my internal voice telling me it’s no big deal triumphs over the one telling me to panic. I don’t fixate on stressors or bad situations much anymore and can shrug off many things that used to consume me. Finally, I can fall asleep and stay asleep!
I know that running isn’t for everyone and that you might not have the same benefits or experience as me, but if you are someone who is suffering from anxiety and wants to find a place to start, I would encourage you to find an exercise that you enjoy and do it regularly. Set a goal for yourself and train to get “over the wall” – whether that’s finishing your set, lap, mile or whatever it may be. You may be surprised at what happens when you push past it.