Tips for if your runs have become hijacked by anxiety and worries. If your runs have been overtaken, then it could be because you’ve been struggling with anxiety and worry rumination in other areas of your life (work, school, family, and more) Does this sound familiar? Continue reading to learn ways to regain control over your mind while logging miles.
What I’ve personally noticed as an endurance runner
My runs typically feel physically great, running clears my mind and I’m refreshed afterwards, ready to tackle absolutely anything. I have a million good reasons for why I run. I run to see new things, to experience adventure, because of the wonderful trail and ultra community, for belt buckles, to support good causes, to look good naked, and the list goes on. Another reason is because it is a fantastic way to improve mental health.
During a one month (maybe longer) stretch, I was struggling with anxiety and worry rumination during my runs. I experienced irrational and distorted thoughts about running while running. It was upsetting that this was occurring and it wasn’t going away. Running was being wrecked, the love was dwindling.
Some of my thoughts said that
• “I’ll never get to where I want to be with my running.”
• “You’re a mom, you should be home with your daughter.”
• “You can’t trust anyone and everyone is watching.”
– This last thought is about safety and security on runs. That I’ll get hit by a vehicle, attacked (or worse) by a man or a dog, or judged on my running and appearance. This is a familiar voice because I am a careful, smart runner when it comes to this kind of safety, but during this period, the voice was particularly loud.
That’s a lot of negative self-talk that was repeated over and over again in my mind. It’s not healthy.
Related mental health info, distorted thinking, neuroplasticity, and the amygdala
In general, thoughts and a wandering mind are natural. We can’t stop them. The brain is problem solving and working through things going on aside from running. The issue lies with the irrational and distorted thoughts when we don’t correct or reframe them. We should rationalize, reframe, think of other outcomes to problems and situations, and think positively. After consistently practicing these habits over a period of time, our brain’s connections will gradually rewire away from worries and anxiety. We can think positively more often. We will be better equipped to handle strong emotions like anxiety.
This process of the brain rewiring is called neuroplasticity. All of this has to do with fight or flight response, which I’m not diving deep into. Physically running calms down the amygdala (where anxiety is produced in the brain) because we’re responding in a fight or flight response. * The point where it gets to be unhealthy is when you ruminate on these thoughts over and over again. The thoughts can become harmful because they might begin to sound true. *
Curious and want to learn more?
If this psychoeducational topic peaks your interest, search these keywords (using credible sources): distorted thinking, neuroplasticity, amygdala, cortex, and anxiety. I can also point you in the right direction.
Why was I experiencing these negative thoughts?
I had these negative thoughts hijack my run time (which is also my self-care time) because I was struggling with anxiety and worry in other areas of my life. It was impacting everything except for my counseling business. My private practice is something that I give a lot to, but I get a lot in return, it fills up my cup. It’s a blessing to be able to provide mental health services. Business aside, my family was feeling the fire that I was under, and some days, I felt overwhelmed by even small tasks that I needed to do.
All of these distorted thoughts are called cognitive distortions. Here they are
• Mind reading – assuming we understand what people are thinking without any evidence.
• Overgeneralization – extending the evidence beyond what is appropriate.
• Magnification – exaggerating our errors and flaws. Catastropizing small negative events, turning them into disasters in our mind.
• Minimization – being dismissive of our strengths and positive attributes.
• Emotional reasoning – making decisions based off of emotions rather than actual evidence.
• Black and white thinking – tendency to evaluate things exclusively in terms of extreme categories.
• Personalization – assuming excessive responsibility of things that we have no control over.
• Fortune telling – predicting what will happen with little or no evidence and just sticking with that belief.
• Labeling – usually negative, when we describe ourselves or another person in an extreme way. Labeling is an inaccurate oversimplification because as people, our behavior is constantly changing.
• Should statements – when we motivate ourselves saying that we should (or shouldn’t) do something. When we’re in this should statements habit, we are setting up false expectations that we should have more certainty than we actually do. This then can lead to emotions like frustration, resentment, and anxiety.
Which distortions does your mind do? We all have them.
Continuing on… runs
One of the million reasons that I run is to clear my mind. My mind wasn’t active in my runs, I was stressed, worried, and going through the motions. I think that part of what was going on was that the runs weren’t long enough to change the way that my brain was functioning. My ankle became injured while racing at Laurel Highlands Ultra in September 2020 (a long time ago). The injury was bad and something that I’d be healing from several months later, so my runs were kept under 15 miles for this long stretch of time. I tend to be able to fully clear my head during “longer” runs, usually around 10 to 13 miles I feel better. It can take that long for me to forget my troubles, that’s just how my brain is. Short runs weren’t working. I worried and was overthinking during my runs. There didn’t seem like anything special about getting out (I was grateful, things could always be worse), running felt like something on my “to do” list that needed to be checked off. There’s slightly more going on here that impacted runs, but I’m not going to go into it because it’s too personal.
Now that there is some foundation of background information, here are the tips
Run examples of mixing it up
• Short run with strides.
• Short run with mixed intensities.
• You don’t need to use your running watch for this, you can go by landmarks, like signs, trees, buildings, and rocks to dictate the amount of time that you spend at the intensity. Choose something somewhat nearby, maybe 30 seconds to 1 minute away. This can become a random game.
• Enjoy nature.
• Variety of running to keep your mind active and focused on the run and effort.
• Tell yourself positive things while you run. What’s something you’re doing well?
Why it works
Mixing up runs this way will require you to increase your focus and awareness on the run, verse the negative things that your mind is telling you. Like a distraction, but better, good for your mental health. By increasing the need to focus, your awareness is on the physical activity. You will be aware of your effort. Aware of your environment. Aware of the time and distance on your watch to switch to another gear. Prepping your mind to go into the higher gear for 30 seconds. Remember neuroplasticity? The more you practice training your mind to focus and become more aware, change can take place. Your mind will gradually rewire. Practice and patience. Consistent practice, like running.
One last tip
Remember your “whys” for running and goals.
For addressing negative thoughts during a run
• Reframe it into something rational and positive.
• Allow them to roll through your awareness. Leave them in the dust. This practice comes from Dialectical Behavior Therapy / mindfulness.
If you’re in a mental space that sounds similar to this, where your mental health is struggling and impacting many areas of your life, talk to a professional counselor. Don’t allow this to go on for more than a couple of weeks. Ask for support now. Running is not therapy.
Switch up your run. Add in strides and mix up the intensity, it’s perfect for short runs. Your focus will be on the run, effort, and environment. There won’t be space to ruminate on worries and feed the anxiety. Plus, you’ll be taking small steps towards long-term mental health changes in the process. Give it a try.