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Get moving: How running can relieve everyday stress and anxiety

By Bri WilsonSeptember 25, 2015

How running sets me free
How running sets me free Penny Lane Photography

I was gasping for air. My lungs couldn’t fill fast enough to ease my oncoming light-headedness. My chest felt heavy, restricted. I wanted to move but felt trapped in my own body. My out-of-shape body.

I paused for a moment on the trail and looked down at my feet as my breathing slowed. A few beads of sweat fell from my nose and darkened the dirt between my brand new pair of sneakers. I wanted to stop. I wanted to turn around and walk back the way I came, about a half a mile from my house. But I knew I needed this.

I had read all about the benefits of running in fitness magazines and decided it was something I needed to do regularly for my physical and emotional health. I struggled with anxiety and other mood disorders throughout high school and was having a hard time coping in the “real world”. I felt like running was something that would help with that, despite the fact it was not an activity I particularly enjoyed. In high school gym class it felt like a form of physical torture. But because no one was forcing me to do it anymore and deep down I knew the only other option for me was going to be medication and therapy (and not that there’s anything wrong with that, because it’s totally necessary for most people with a mood disorder), I decided running would be my outlet. Repetitively putting one foot in front of the other for an hour or so was going to set me free from my thoughts and emotions.  

I’m glad I kept going that day. I put one foot in front of the other until I arrived back at my doorstep two and a half miles later, sweaty and winded but satisfied and smiling.

Fast forward seven years, three marathons, two triathlons, countless 10Ks and half marathons and even one 50K ultra later, and I can confidently say that not only has running helped me to manage my anxiety, but also has made me a more physically and emotionally capable person.

Repetitively putting one foot in front of the other for an hour or so was going to set me free from my thoughts and emotions.  

You’ve probably all heard of a “runner’s high” – well, I can tell you it’s a thing and it’s real. The experience of expertly moving your feet over mossy rocks, gnarly roots and a forest floor trail blanketed with pine needles, trees whizzing by in a blur of green, arms pumping, legs pushing, heart beating— it’s cathartic. And it feels so natural. Like humans were meant to being doing it all along.

Technically, I guess we are. Our bodies were meant to move: all our bones, joints, tendons and muscles are perfectly designed for running, jumping, kicking, swimming, climbing and dancing. No wonder we feel so out of touch with reality and captivated by our own mind sometimes. We have our sedentary, westernized culture to thank for that.

Running has become my time for reflection and what I like to call a “thought dump.” All those worries, pent-up emotions, problems that need solving and creative ideas for work projects get sorted out as I pound the pavement or the trail. By the time I’m back at my door step, I’ve usually come up with a great idea for an article, solved a problem for work, figured out what to get a friend for their birthday, and dispelled any emotionally charged thoughts. I’m also physically exhausted, which has been shown to help ease the symptoms of anxiety.

Though running is certainly not for everybody and is not the panacea for our psychological problems, it has definitely helped me manage mine. If running is not your thing, I think it’s safe to say that any activity that allows you to move your body like a human is meant to in the natural elements is good for your health and emotional well-being.

So give it a try. Put on a pair of running shoes and go outside. It might just help set you free.