“There’s not much more I can do to help you,” my therapist said three years ago. “At this point, all I can suggest is that you run as hard as you can at least five days a week. The only clients I have who can really keep their anxiety in check are the ones who exercise—hard—regularly.”
This advice was not what I wanted to hear. Speaking on behalf of those of us who live with panic attacks, trust me: I thought this “wisdom” ranked up there with other useless attempts at calming words nice people say to us when our hearts are beating out of control and we are sweating through our clothes, suffocating, and picturing sudden death: “just relax,” “breathe,” “it’s going to be okay,” “It’s all in your head,” “be rational,” “don’t get hysterical,” or “let it go.”
So, I ran some, but never went all out. I fantasized about “the zone” runners talk about—the “runner’s high.” I just assumed it wasn’t in the cards for me—I’ve never been an athlete and I hated running. I attempted it for the first time in late May of 2013 when my kids came home from elementary school after having run a mile in gym class. I wondered, how long would it take me to do that? figuring ten minutes or so. Well, I couldn’t even make it to the next corner; my first completed mile would come two weeks later—clocked in at 17 excruciating minutes.
But panic and anxiety became worse for me after the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2016. Everything seemed scary. I spent untold hours worrying about when my next crisis moment was going to come. After living in this condition for too many months, I started adding miles to my runs along Chicago’s lakefront. I also added a few 5K races. It wasn’t easy, but I felt like I was making some progress; my body started to want to get out there. Even though I began to feel more powerful and liked myself more, I still wasn’t following my therapist’s advice.
Then I found Springsteen. David Remnick’s New Yorker podcast with “The Boss” was my earbud companion for a run through the park. Remnick asked his guest how he endured the long extra-long concerts for which Springsteen is known. He said (my transcription):
Losing myself was something…I was shooting for…. I had enough of myself by that time to want to lose myself. So, I went on stage each night to…do just exactly that…. Playing is orgiastic…playing is a moment of self-realization and self-erasure at the same time. You disappear and blend into all the other people that are out there and into the notes and the chords and the music…and you rise up and vanish into it. I was pursuing intoxication…. People want to lose themselves, they only stand so much of themselves.
At that very second, running south toward Chicago’s skyline, I got it. I pushed hard to get home. I have had enough “self-realization” to last a lifetime—please, now give me “self-erasure” (without drugs and alcohol). Two days later, I started out again, increasing my usual one or two miles first to three, then five, eight, and then nine, and then I reached beyond any goal I could have ever imagined when I ran the Naples, Florida, 13.1-mile half-marathon this January.
First at the starting line, I cried tears of relief every couple of miles as my body, working hard, released and relaxed. The only way I can describe it is like the “letdown” reflex when my sons were babies and would breast-feed. The physiological release allows the nervous system to relax and brings about unbelievable quiet. During the half-marathon, to my surprise, at about mile nine, my body let go—with it my brain finally (after 48 years!) quieted its worrying, sorting, analyzing, debating, and challenging. There was no room for anxiety or irrational fear. All my energy was directed at keeping up my pace—one stride at a time. The words in my head changed from a commanding, demanding refrain timed with my footfalls of “you can do it, you can do it, you can do it,” to a self-loving, self-forgiving song of “dear Sophia, you are doing it, you are actually doing it!”
None of this is a revelation; self-help guides regularly espouse the positive mental effects of exercise. However, like anything, we can’t understand life’s truths (truth, love, joy, freedom) until we experience them for ourselves. So, I’ve reflected on how I got here, and offer a few steps to find peace in running (remembering only to try a new sport if your doctor says it’s safe):
- Remember: You’re not alone. There is so much online and community support about running. The New York Times running blogs have been essential to my journey. Also think about joining a local runners’ association or finding a neighborhood school cross-country coach interested in freelance training work.
- Don’t obsess about distance: In my experience, one mile is a great distance. I was dismayed to read on a fitness website that people should cover four miles on average; that made me want to quit. My one mile suited my schedule and body well for over three years, and I am sure I will return to it someday.
- Build a habit: Habits help drive our functionality in almost every part of life. Choose a running routine. For me, every other day seems to work, and offers some flexibility as well.
- Measure: Keep track of distance and speed. A New York Times article demonstrates women’s increased desire to achieve when they’re competing against themselves. Using a running app with both distance and timing functions motivates me.
- Be comfortable/feel stylish: Wear running shoes and clothes that make you feel good. Feeling good helps performance and happiness.
- Bring running shoes when you travel: Jogging on trips is a great way to see a city, suburb, or countryside. If running shoes take up too much room in my suitcase, I wear them on the plane.
- Be realistic: Running is often not a lot of fun. From what I’ve read, even the best runners, like the best golfers, have bad days when their bodies and/or minds let them down. So, given I’m an amateur, I accept the fact that running feels like work the vast percentage of the time. But it’s worth it.
So, I still live bracing for the worst, always. But now having felt what it’s like to let go, I’m going to do all I can to continue to find moments of positive release through running and let those precious seconds transfer to other parts of my life. I’m going to try to stop saying to myself words I hate hearing from others like, “just breathe,” or “let it go.” I’m going to dispense with “just do it,” in favor of “you are doing it,” “you are fine,” “you got this, Sophia.”
Each time I now hit the pavement, I remind myself that while running I am giving myself permission to be happy. While I still often hate the workout, I know that I am choosing to break the physiological and psychological habits of panic and anxiety. Yes, I am loving myself when I tie on my shoes, no matter what the trail has in store for me that day.