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State of mind: Running and mental health

Ashleigh Went

Mental health is a massively important part of general health and wellbeing, and mental illness is something that isn’t spoken about nearly enough. I’m not ashamed to say that like many others, I’ve experienced it first hand. It’s different for every person of course, but for me, it was an adjustment order, which is defined as an extreme emotional reaction to a stressor. What can’t be defined though, are the deep, dark moments that stretch out like an eternity or the challenge of getting out of bed every day.

I should mention the immeasurable love from my support network without whom I may never have gotten better. However, the single best thing that I did for myself – the one thing that really helped me the most – was running.

It’s tough to find the energy to exercise when you’re feeling down or anxious. But for me, it worked and let me tell you why…

1. Running gives you a sense of control

You can’t control the behaviour or feelings of people around you, and sometimes, we can’t even control our own thoughts or emotions. But luckily, what you can control is your body. And doing something constructive and healthy for yourself gives you some much needed empowerment.

For me, it felt like my mind had stopped working properly. When I was running, I felt like I was moving as a single, powerful unit, the way I was supposed to.

2. It teaches you valuable lessons

The secret to running? Putting one foot in front of the other.

It’s simple, but such a great metaphor for overcoming the many hurdles that life throws in our path. Take it one step at a time, or one day at a time. As long as you’re moving forward, eventually you’ll make it through. You might even catch yourself enjoying some of the journey along the way.

3. It brings you confidence

I know that there’s many different opinions about what the best method is for losing weight or “getting toned”, and I’m certainly not qualified to tell you what that is. What I can tell you, is that running helped me to lose weight that I’d stacked on from emotional eating and staying in bed.

More importantly however, it made me wonder at what my body was capable of. My goal was 21.1km – a half marathon. For you, that goal might be 2km. Or maybe it’s 42. Whatever it is, kicking goals makes you feel good. I broke down mine into tiny goals – increasing my distance every week. On days I felt really terrible, my goal was just to lace up my shoes and get outside or hop on the treadmill and see where it took me. Even if it was just for five or 10 minutes, it still felt like a small win.

4. It makes you strong

And not just physically. People often say that running is 50 per cent fitness, 50 per cent determination. When it feels like you’re at war with your mind, it can be really satisfying to conquer it in small ways. For example, I’ve found that during most of my runs, I hit a wall. It’s built from excuses – “I’m tired”, “I can’t do this”, “why don’t I just walk”. Pushing through and persevering makes you feel like a hero – and that’s never a bad thing.

Have you ever heard the expression that willpower is like a muscle: the more you flex it, the stronger it gets? I found that knowing that I could mentally handle a 15km run really helped on the days where I felt like I didn’t even have the strength to get out of bed and face the big scary world.

5. It allows you to surprise yourself

Being good at something is a good feeling. I never thought I would be able to run 10km, let alone 21. I vividly remember one of my first visits to the gym, running for two minutes and thinking “I’ll never do that again!”. At the time, I really meant it! I hated it. It was uncomfortable, difficult and sweaty.1

By sticking to my goal, being consistent and taking baby steps, I became good at running, and even learned to enjoy it.

6. It gives you somewhere to escape to

Running allows you to get out of the house – and get out of your mind. There’s sunshine, people around you, and new surroundings. In other words, there are distractions: things that will take your mind off your troubles, even if only for half an hour.

I also found that when I had to focus my mind on breathing, pace, and generally trying not to pass out, I didn’t have the energy to fuel negative thinking.

Be mindful when taking long runs however that you don’t become overwhelmed by your thoughts. Have a great playlist, mix it up with a podcast, or practice moving meditation – it helps.

7. The glorious runners high

Endorphins. That is all.

Runner’s high isn’t just an expression, it’s a real thing. The chemical reaction in your body – the flood of endorphins – is such an amazing feeling. It won’t last forever, but it will lift your spirits and give you a little burst of joy.

8. It gives you social interaction

I was running with the Maple + Clove Runner’s Group and it made a huge difference. Meeting people outside of your usual circle, and in a non threatening environment, can make a big impact on your life.

I met some amazing people who gave me perspective, hope and support – even when I was just running silently alongside them or listening to their conversations.

9. It helps you sleep

Many people find it hard to sleep when suffering from mental illness. When the day is over and you’re alone with your thoughts, it can be really tough to switch off and relax.

Running, and any form of exercise for that matter, can help with sleep.

10. It makes you appreciate the great outdoors

We are so blessed in Canberra to have a great number of beautiful trails, tracks and mountains to explore. Getting some fresh air and sunshine can do wonders for your mood. That’s because it tops up your vitamin D levels and triggers the release of serotonin – the happy hormone.

For an added boost, take of your running shoes and get your bare feet on the grass. ‘Grounding’ or ‘earthing’ like this is practice based on the theory that our bodies connect on an electromagnetic level with the earth, helping to rid the body of free radicals and helps to achieve optimum health.

I’m not saying that running is a magic cure. I’m not even saying it’s for everyone – maybe for you it’s swimming, walking, lifting weights, yoga… whatever it is that works for you, stick to it. The times when you’re mind is most resistant to it, is often the times that our bodies need it most. I’m not sure if I’ve fully recovered, but what I do know is that when I feel stressed, disappointed, overwhelmed, angry, hurt, depressed or anxious, I turn to running. And I find solace

If you feel like you’re suffering from depression, anxiety or any kind of mental illness, there are people out there who can help you. Aside from your GP and counselling professionals or psychologists, Lifeline Canberra is always there to help people in need – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on 13 11 14.

In fact, for 43 years, Lifeline Canberra has provided Telephone Crisis Support from their team of over 250 trained volunteers from the ACT and surrounding region. Whether the crisis is small or large, they are always there to lend an ear in a supportive, non-judgemental and confidential way.

In addition to their Telephone Crisis Support, Lifeline Canberra offers a range of other mental health services and programs. For example, they’ve partnered with a number of local wellbeing businesses. If running doesn’t strike your fancy or you’re looking for a little more support, contact one of the following:

Your Journey Meditation – Jennifer Saxton

Services: Guided meditation DVDs and an annual Meditation Challenge
Contact: www.yourjourney.com.au

Tidy Temple Yoga – Kristin and Rob Ginnivan

Services: Yoga classes in a range of styles are offered from 3 locations: Nichols, Gungahlin and the City, as well as the Tidy Temple Yoga Mobile Studio.
Contact: www.tidytempleyoga.com

Mind Your Body Pilates – Karen Dzialdowski

Service: Plates mat classes run from Canberra City and DL2 Dance Studio at Gorman House, as well as private sessions.
Contact: www.mindyourbodypilates.com.au

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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Ashleigh Went

Ashleigh Went has a passion for all things health and wellness. She’s currently furthering her studies in nutrition, but also has a Bachelor of Communication and is a qualified fitness instructor with over five years experience working in a gym. Among other things, she’s a lover of great food, coffee and fashion. She can usually be found shopping for activewear, in the gym or updating her Instagram @wentworthavenue More about the Author