Exercise and anxiety

I used to suffer from chronic anxiety. This illness took many forms, the most pervasive of which was my compulsion to worry constantly, envisioning the worst possible outcome of any situation or endeavor. I would also brood, spending hours, days or weeks blowing up the smallest negative interaction into some sort of globally applicable proof of all that was wrong with me, my life and the world. Another delightful side effect was periodic hypochondria. But the crowning feature was the full blown panic attacks I’d suffer every few years, often with several clustered in a short period of time. If you’ve ever had one of these, you’ll know that they are intensely frightening, uncomfortable and exhausting experiences.

For years I attempted to treat this problem through traditional talk therapy. Years. Well over 10. In hindsight, I probably should have tried a more practical variety, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, but, despite rejecting many of its theories (Oedipal complex? please, spare me) I bought the psychoanalytic approach hook, line and sinker.

I don’t feel that those years I spent in the chair were a total waste of time and money. Insofar as I had a sympathetic ear once or twice a week, I think that I was helped in some ways during those years in terms of getting some perspective. But the issue that brought me there in the first place — horrendous anxiety — remained, sometimes abating for a few years at a time, and in the process convincing me that I was over the problem. But it was always a matter of time before it came roaring right back.

I’d been running 15-20 miles per week since the age of 34. Then I started upping the mileage and effort at 39 in training for my first major race, a half marathon. Shortly after I started running more, and running harder, I noticed subtle yet unmistakable changes in mood. Not just the cessation of anxiety attacks (I’d seen that before), but a lifting of the constant dread and chorus of negativity that permeated my inner mental world.

So I ran more, and I ran harder. I got better, both as a runner and in my head. The daily devil of nagging anxiety had at last been banished. I felt so much better that I finally quit therapy, a decision I’d been struggling with for several years. I didn’t need it anymore. That was about four and a half years ago. Not coincidentally, that is the longest I’ve gone between anxiety attacks since I started having them in my preteen years.

I decided to post about this after reading this article in the NY Times, which seems to bring some scientific evidence to bear on my anecdotal experience.

Of course, what this means is that I can probably never stop running. I can live with that.

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