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The Runner’s Guide to Anxiety

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. These runners think it's time to end the stigma around anxiety.

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When Ally Beard was in high school, she thought she was totally alone in her experience with anxiety and depression. It wasn’t widely discussed in her community at the time. When she learned that one of her teachers, Christine Ravesi-Weinstein, shared her experience, it started the two on a path to advocacy and personal growth.

“It’s pretty amazing,” says Ravesi-Weinstein, “I think about her journey, and I hope all kids that are experiencing anxiety can come out of it like Ally has.” 

An unlikely friendship blossomed as the two started running together after Beard graduated. It was on one of their runs that the idea for their nonprofit, Running From Anxiety, developed. The organization offers an annual scholarship to a high school senior, as well as organizes group runs and support groups for people with anxiety. And their experience operating the nonprofit led to Ravesi-Weistein to write her debut book, Anxiouswhich was released this year. 

Part of the mission of the nonprofit is to raise awareness about anxiety and how running can be a release for people suffering. “Think. Run. Fight,” is their slogan.


Getting Acquainted with Anxiety

Anxiety is a mental health condition with a variety of possible causes. It can be a circumstantial fear of change, loss, the unknown (or maybe a global pandemic). Some people with anxiety disorders don’t necessarily need an external trigger to make them anxious. Recent research published by the Society of Neuroscience suggests that these people could be more prone to anxiety based on genetic components and the way proteins signal serotonin. 

If you ask Karen Cogan, senior sports psychologist with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, experiencing some degree of anxiety is just a natural part of being human. “We are all going to experience it and we are never going to make it go away,” she says. The key is in managing it. 

But the physiological symptoms can be very uncomfortable, especially for runners who rely on the entire body to be in sync. “For a mental illness, it has a lot of physical manifestations,” says Beard, who personally experiences headaches and stomach aches when she is anxious. For other people, anxiety might mean shortness of breath, muscle tension, sweaty palms, racing heart, uncontrollable fidgeting, or trouble sleeping. And when those physical episodes disturb your ability to train, the anxiety can become worse.

Managing Your Own Anxiety

Although panic disorders are extremely personal, there are some coping mechanisms that you can try to temporarily disarm an attack.

Get active.
An analysis in the Journal of Depression & Anxiety found that physical activity can protect people with anxiety disorders from experiencing symptoms. Beard and Ravesi-Weinstein find running to be an extremely useful coping mechanism. When Beard feels those head or stomach aches coming on, she knows she needs to get out and run, even when all she wants to do is lay down. 

But if a run is too much for you, Ravesi-Weinstein recommends you still get up and move in some way, even if it’s just doing laundry. “Your body was designed to move. It wants to move,” she says.

Rely on a routine.
Routines can provide comfort. But when a routine is lost, like due to the COVID-19 pandemic or an injury, it can trigger anxiety. Cogan recommends continuing to adapt to some sort of routine, even if it has to be adjusted as situations unfold. “It’s going to look a little different now,” she says, “but can you create some structure for yourself that keeps you going.”

Take a breath (or two).
“Sometimes we find when we’re very anxious we stop breathing, almost, or the breathing is very shallow,” says Cogan, “so you’re not getting that complete inhale or that complete exhale.” Taking the time to focus on deep breathing can help temporarily ease anxiety.

Chew gum.
Some studies show that chewing gum can improve mood and reduce the feeling of anxiety, though it’s not known why. 

Call on your team.
Having people who support you and are also able to recognize your physical cues can make a huge difference. Sometimes you might not realize you are fidgeting and becoming more anxious until a loved one points out that maybe it’s time you get out for a run. Cogan adds that practicing kindness and patience with people experiencing anxiety, especially around the global pandemic, is especially important. 

Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a psychological practice of staying in the moment. It can be extremely helpful for reducing anxiety, but it takes a while to master. It is something that can be taught in therapy or practiced through online resources. Beard has found staying in the moment helpful when the act of running doesn’t dissolve her anxiety: “In times like that, the only way I can snap out of it is by focusing on what’s happening. So I think, ‘OK, if I can get from here to that mailbox, that’s an accomplishment.’”

Progressive muscle relaxation.
This exercise is designed to help you locate where in your body you hold tension. The goal is to learn to intentionally relax that muscle when you need to. Think about your body, section by section. Tense the individual muscle you’re thinking about for five seconds. Then relax it and move to the next one. “If you move part by part,” says Cogan, “you can tell a little bit more about what’s going on.”

When to Seek Help

Cogan mentions that while anxiety is a natural part of life, it should not be so bad that it is overwhelming, unmanageable, or you’re unable to function. That would be the point to seek some sort of counseling or medical help. 

If you are experiencing a crisis, the suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-8255) is available 24/7 to help. Or dial 911 for emergencies. 

As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, Cogan wants to help end the stigma. “I think there’s been an image of athletes for a long time that they’re strong and tough and nothing gets to them, but that’s not true.” Anyone can experience problems with mental health, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The more it is talked about, the more people realize how commonplace it is.

For Beard, who has opened up more and more about her experience over the years, “I think the worst thing someone with anxiety can do is try and hide it.”