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.

16 Responses

  1. Isn’t exercise great? The biggest thing I noticed once I started running was that I no longer needed my zoloft to treat (post partum) depression. Running took care of it all by itself.

    Good for you!

  2. Given how anxious I can be, I’m thankful I have running to keep a damper on it. Although, ironically, I can be at my most anxious in relation to my running.

    I do love your stuff.

  3. I totally sympathize. My symptoms have also gone down but I used to get insane stabbing pain in my gut in nearly every social event that I just learned to live with, since nothing either made it worse or helped (during the event, that is).

    Paxil helped, but I didn’t like the idea of being dependent, so that was just a few months, and somehow its faded quite a bit in the last few years. Maybe I’m just older and more secure in my choices?


  4. Great post.

    Back in 2004, my Dad died suddenly, which caused me to go bonkers for about a year. I had a bad case of anxiety-induced hypochondria where I would play out every possible scenario of how I was going to die: falling down the stairs I was approaching, getting hit by a car that was coming down the street, getting sucked out of the side of an airplane due to sheet metal fatigue, etc. I also started getting my first ocular migraines during this time period, and of course was convinced I had brain cancer until I was diagnosed with migraines.

    I started running about 6 months after my Dad’s death and gradually those near-daily anxious episodes disappeared. I’ll never know for certain whether or not running played a role in my ‘cure’, but I always suspected it did.

    As for the article, I don’t find rat science to be very compelling. Evidence-based medicine is all I need to make the connection, and it seems like there’s a reasonable one to be made here.

    • It’s amazing how a massive loss or other source of stress can turn our brains against us. I had crazy shit happen during some of my episodes that aren’t even documented among common symptoms: in addition to “flashing lights” at the periphery of my vision, I would sometimes also have a huge blind spot right in the middle of my line of vision. This had me convinced I had brain cancer for awhile too.

      Also, not to minimize Joe’s and Ewen’s comments (although I’m about to), I’ve experienced pre-race anxiety and still do. While it can be nervewracking, it’s still mere child’s play compared to full blown panic attacks, racing thoughts for hours at a time, persistent dread and other symptoms. It’s kind of like comparing being saddened by a depressing news story to having clinical depression.

  5. Thanks for that post Julie — can’t have been easy to write.

    That’s good news about exercise (running) making one less anxious. I’ve been running pretty much continuously for almost 30 years, so don’t know how I might have been without it. Although, like Joe, I can get pretty anxious about running itself — especially the prospect of a short track race or hard interval session.

    Anyway, do whatever you can to stay a lifetime runner. And maybe don’t go and see 2012 πŸ˜‰

    • Actually, it was surprisingly easy to write and didn’t make me anxious in the least.

      I also love disaster movies and will probably be seeing 2012 this weekend. Just try to figure that one out.

  6. Julie, I totally understand. Pre-race anxiety and disaster movies are in no way the same kind of feelings for which I am lightly medicated. I think the running helps, usually, but apparently I still have to attend social functions and interact with people. And, hysterically, my social anxiety is such that I get really bonkers about running with new people. I was supposed to meet a girl on Monday to run — I’ve had a number of conversations with her — and decided to skip. Lalala.

    Then again, there’s a lot to be said for the brain-quieting success of mystery-functioning SNRIs. =)

    • Tracy, I hope if you travel here in January (or whenever), you’ll look me up. I still have a fair degree of social anxiety, which I accept will probably be with me for life, as it hasn’t improved and is a natural outcropping of my extreme introversion. It would be fairly entertaining to see just how awkward such a meeting could be. πŸ™‚

  7. “Of course, what this means is that I can probably never stop running. I can live with that.” I love that. I’m a lifer too… If I ever have to give running up, I’m in serious trouble; running is my sanity.

    I’m glad that you found running. It really is an amazing thing. I often find myself wondering how some people out there can get through life without it.

  8. Julie, I try and write thoughtful essayistic posts on my blog like this but always fall short. This is an excellent post. I am happy for you that your running (which isn’t just about volume but about speed) staves off clinical anxiety while also giving you something to crow about.

    I have pushed my way through depression more than once by running. Runners know what others don’t–it just makes life better, in every which way.


  9. Julie, I didn’t mean to make light of what has obviously been a very difficult illness to deal with. Take care, and may your running continue to provide enjoyment and challenge.

  10. […] a spice — it’s a crutch for unimaginative cooks). Also, during the many years in which I suffered from panic attacks (I don’t anymore), restaurants were my primary “trigger venue,” — with […]

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