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How running helped my mental health

One of our Young Champions talks about how running is a method of self-care for her. 

Over the past few years, I have researched and tried out various self-care activities to try and help my day-to-day mental health. Some methods, such as ASMR and writing a diary, worked terribly for me. I couldn't stand the sound or concept of ASMR and could never remind myself to spend a few minutes reviewing each day.  Others, for example, listening to particular kinds of music and writing literature worked particularly well for me – running was one of these.

There are some people who cannot stand the thought of running and I will always get odd looks towards the idea of me liking such an activity. Often, I feel slightly disappointed by the common perception around the words ‘long-distance' or ‘cross country', merely due to the way it has helped me with my mental health.

Over the past few years, I have experienced various levels of high anxiety. Nerves can often see a rise in my anxiety levels,  as it stimulates what is referred to as a ‘fight or flight’ response. In this situation, the hormone adrenaline is produced by the body. If I cannot relieve these levels of unneeded adrenaline, I may feel extremely overwhelmed by the intense need to ‘escape’.

This is where running helped significantly. I appreciated that I couldn’t go for a run in every situation and so I did have ‘additional self-care’ methods that worked similarly – fidget cubes are a good idea and, during my A-Levels, I went almost everywhere with one. But, when I was able to, running allowed me to get rid of the built-up adrenaline, reducing that feeling of being overwhelmed and allowing me to clear my head. Having a clearer head then gave me a chance to rationalise and reason with my feelings of anxiety and more often than not, I would feel significantly better.  It also helped to build up my confidence. My struggle with high anxiety was brought on in part by a lack of confidence in both my abilities and appearance. As I slowly built up a routine, I began to feel better about myself both physically and mentally gradually finding it easier to get myself out of bed and go for a run. 

Creating this routine within my running was extremely useful in taking care of my mental health, thus my excitement was understandable when during Sixth Form my school had decided to form a running club. This was particularly important for me, as this period of time saw my anxiety grow to perhaps the worst I have experienced it. I was taking time out during every week and feeling exhausted almost every day. Due to the extent of the negative perception around the distances we were running, I often found the club was reduced to no more than five or six people – but this was even better. Each Wednesday, we would run between 6-8km in total, constantly encouraged and challenged by the teachers who formed the club. Admittedly, at the start of year 13, I missed a few weeks as I had severe moments of feeling overwhelmed, extremely exhausted and I initially struggled with the distance. But I gradually found myself waiting for Wednesdays. It gave me the knowledge that I had a running group that would encourage me to go out every week and cover challenging distances. It was only in four months of being with this club that I found myself running a 10km park charity run and not entirely being sure how, or why.

In the first week of university, I strived to find a running buddy and now, six weeks into university we end up running around 5km at least three to four times a week. We aim to run in the mornings, which gives me a ‘start-up’ for the day, allowing me to work on a good level of energy and, amusingly enough, it is a good way to wake up! Although my levels of anxiety still exist and do appear from time to time, I have noticed that they have reduced, particularly due to the extent of running I have managed to incorporate into my university schedule.

So do you have to run 5-10km for this to be an effective self-care activity? – Absolutely not! When I began running, just running down the street a few times allowed me to begin to clear my head. Initially, I thought that running wouldn’t help. I felt that it would contribute to my stress within the day. But, I noticed it really made a difference.

On My Mind is a website that aims to empower young people to make informed choices about their mental health and wellbeing. The pages were co-produced by young people to help other young people. The website includes a self-care page that has 89 self-care strategies.