Running for Anxiety

Feb 5, 2018 | Blog

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RunningRunning away from anxiety is most likely a more common natural instinct, however, running to control anxiety may just be the therapy you’re looking for – that is right at your feet.

There is no denying that running makes us feel great. However, for many, it is a staple part of our day to help control the effects of anxiety. It alters our chemical balance, our cognition and the way we process things mentally, maybe the relief you have been searching for all along is as simple as a pair of running trainers and an open road.

A newbies advice to starting running is usually ‘sign up for a 5K, it gets you really motivated!’. Running is so much more than completing a race, beating your PB or perfecting your technique. It offers a literal breath of fresh air from the constant effects of anxiety that drag us down daily.

‘Whatever your ear candy of choice – audiobooks, podcasts, music, or Story Runs – use it as a nudge to get you going. Perhaps you enjoy the sounds of nature or traffic or focusing on your own thoughts instead. Great. Use it as a trigger to tie a pleasant activity to a not-so-pleasant one.’ – Maria Nokkonen, content creator at Adidas Group

The Symptom Solver

How many times have you been led to believe there is a new miracle cure for anxiety? A million, right? Running isn’t that ‘cure’ we’ve all been searching for. Instead, it offers a relief from the symptoms. Below is a list of the general symptoms that are more than familiar to many of us, and the reasons why running may be the helping hand you need to battle them.

Lack of Sleep

No matter how early you get to rest, how unreachable your mobile phone or how soft your bed sheets. Heck, you could drink your body weight in Chamomile and you still wouldn’t be able to calm down. Sleep anxiety affects a whole lot of us – one in three, in fact.

A study published in Sleep Medicine tested running on a group of older adults who did little to no exercise and had persistent insomnia. The participants did aerobic exercise three days a week for 16 weeks. By the end of that period, they took less time to fall asleep, had better and longer sleep, was asleep for the larger part of the time they spent in bed and functioned better in the daytime than before.

Read my blog post on how to manage sleep anxiety. 

RunningWorrying / Panicking

The hustle and bustle of everyday life can often be overwhelming, running provides a release. No phone, no distractions, just you and the open road. This in itself allows you some free time to clear your mind of any worrying thoughts.

When our body is under stress it releases a hormone called cortisol. It is known that cortisol levels increase during exercise, but bear with me for a second. From the excess cortisol circulating in the body right after exercise, your body gets negative feedback to slow down cortisol release. That’s how the cortisol levels drop after some time and bring about a feeling of relaxation and relieving stress. Running also makes your body release mood-lifting hormones like dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and norepinephrine.


Meditation is usually a go-to to control our breathing and relax when anxiety is looming. The shallow breaths that we often associate with the dreaded panic attacks are usually what makes our anxiety worse.

Cure Joy explains that regular running has a positive effect on your breathing pattern. As an aerobic activity, it increases your aerobic capacity, that is your ability to take in more oxygen and use it efficiently.

Tingling, Pins and Needles

The sensation we feel when anxiety is knocking proves that anxiety is so much more than a mental issue, it affects our body to the point where sometimes we can physically feel anxiety in the form of tingling and pins and needles. Running normalises the heart rate and the blood flow. Once blood circulation improves, the symptoms of numbness or tingling also subside.

The Science of Running

What causes the feel-good effect? The usual answer that springs to mind is ‘endorphins’ – however, research has proven that this form of exercise produces much more than a runners high. Runner’s World explains:

‘A short-term mood boost thanks to endorphins is one thing. (Granted, one much-appreciated thing.) But where running really helps with mental health is over time, thanks to a change in brain structure. A review of research published in Clinical Psychology Review concluded “exercise training recruits a process which confers enduring resilience to stress.” This appears to occur because regular running produces the same two changes that are thought to be responsible for the effectiveness of anti-depressants: increased levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, and neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons.

Neurogenesis occurs primarily due to a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which has been called the Miracle-Gro of the brain It helps neurons fire and wire together. Much of this happens in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that’s often shrunken in people with mental health issues. MRI scans have shown that even after a six-month exercise intervention, there’s a visible increase in the size of the hippocampus’

Step by Step  Running

Step One

The first step is usually the toughest. On days where anxiety bounds you to your bedroom, the last thing you want to do is open the front door and run outside. However, if you can overcome the mental battle and convince yourself it will be worth it – I promise you that your second run won’t seem so daunting.

Step Two

Controlling your breathing can be difficult at first, overwhelming surroundings combined with your anxiety and the fact you haven’t actually committed to one single minute of cardio since last summer is a recipe for a stitch… instantly. When your body is placed under stress, this is the first element that is forgotten about. Deep breathing helps relax the body and reduces some of the tightness and stresses placed on it.

Step Three

You may be aware that using triggers is a method of mentally reducing anxiety – phrases that keep your mind focused and prevent you from drifting to negative thoughts that set your anxiety off, you should use these at tough or stressful points during your run.

RunningLive Strong says: ‘Many elite athletes use this method when they face challenges during races. Thinking of a word, such as “strength” when powering up a hill can help you overcome the unease of that hill, while a phrase as simple as “I can do it” will give you more confidence and reduce some anxiety related to performance. If you sense anxious feelings approaching, you can also use a specific intervention word, such as “STOP!” to interrupt negative thought patterns.’

Step Four

Release pressure. The whole point in running is to clear your mind, don’t focus on how fast you’re running, what you look like or what others think. Focus on yourself, your thoughts and you’ll soon find yourself thinking of absolutely nothing at all. And that’s okay! In fact, that may be just what you needed.

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