Mental Health Is a divisive topic, and one which for every question or challenge that is posed there will be at least as many answers or modalities that portend to answer the specific challenge. Mental health is misunderstood, and those who experience serious mental illness over their lifetime experience significant discrimination and stigma. Unfortunately, this pattern of discrimination and stereotyping extends to those health professionals who work in mental health services, both from within the health system and from those outside it. Mental ill health has significant negative physical health consequences over the course of a person’s lifetime. A person with a lived experience of severe mental illness may have a life expectancy that is 20 years less than that of a person who does not suffer mental illness. Certainly, lifestyle and other factors can influence our mental states somewhat, those of us who exercise regularly, rest well and eat a balanced diet can expect to feel better generally however there is no substitute for considered treatment* of mental health disorders from a registered health professional. I say this, as a professional, not an enthusiastic amateur.
Running Is not therapy. I know this to be true. What I also know to be true is that running has several intensely therapeutic properties which aid in wellbeing. Running provides us with solitude from our increasingly busy and connected lives, running benefits us by lowering our blood pressure and heart rate, running can assist with the moderation of our nutritional intake, so we may be drawn to healthier foods, which in turn makes us feel better. Running provides, structure, guidance, community, occupation, meaning. Running precipitates greater endorphin production and release. Running allows us periods of mindfulness, whereby we focus on our immediate action and surrounds, running stimulates our vestibular and proprioceptive systems (that control balance and our sense of where we are in space), which are both powerhouses of calming.
Running is not therapy. The distraction of running and the pleasure it builds can simply put distance between ourselves and challenge, not address them. Running can become a form of control in our lives, this can lead to compulsion, which is never helpful. To see a world class athlete speak about how running can be less than healthy I would encourage you to watch Aaron Smart’s short film on Ruby Muir; Just Keep Running. Ruby’s candor and insight into how running turned from an adaptive method of coping with the grief of her father’s terminal illness, into a method of control that Muir likened to “Anorexia”. When Muir found herself seriously injured, she was forced to regroup and face her distress, literally unable to run from it anymore.
Running is not therapy. As I write this, I am formulating the critiques that people may have. Yes, running is ostensibly healthier than say, methamphetamine use, however problematic engagement in both has the same antecedents; escaping distress, unease with sitting with emotional dischord, hedonism and a struggle to delay gratification. Certainly I am not saying running is comparable to methamphetamine abuse, but I am highlighting whilst one is overwhelmingly negative, the other may have negative consequences if it becomes a method of blocking emotional regulation and coping.
I run five to six times a week. It is an integral part of my life. I universally better when I run. I recognise that running is not therapy. If I have had a particularly stressful day or difficult interaction, running provides me a period of time not focussing, ruminating or replaying the distressing stimuli. Focussing on my immediate surrounds, my five senses and the motion of running clears my mind and increases my feelings of well being immeasurably. If I do focus on a problem or a negative cognition, I generally replay it over and over in my head, and am less likely to solve the problem per se, rather self-vent. This may work for minor issues, however not long standing or serious distress. I may feel physiologically calmer, but in terms of my mental health I feel cheated. Running is my time to think about running.
We all experience minor changes in our mood, struggle with adjusting to change or stress and at times feel sadness, anger, fear, and shame. I would suggest that these emotions, whist distressing, are a normal, healthy, and adaptive response to stimuli which impact upon us in a negative manner. These feelings, experienced in their normal scope, are as night and day to the aberrance of major depressive disorder, anxiety, PTSD, psychosis or mania. All of which deserve a considered, person focussed and multifactorial approach with a health professional with whom you can build a therapeutic alliance.
Running is deeply therapeutic, but running is not therapy. Running is not a cure all. Attributing these properties to Running seems almost unfair. If we step away from this standpoint, I think we open ourselves up to considering other modalities to address any issue that may be impacting on us, and we free running up to be the wonderful experience that it should be. That unburdening of running in itself, can only impact positively on our function, well being and mental state.