Running and emotion: Accumulating miles to ease anxiety

By: Jacqueline Palfy .

two women hiking up a hill
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The drive to school every morning is full of random chatter – about who forgot gym shoes, about if lunch is hot or cold and general observations about school and home.

This gloomy Monday was no different – we sat at an intersection and watched the rain drizzle on the windshield, not enough to turn the wipers on full bore, but just enough, combined with the grey sky, to cause everyone to slump in their seats, just a little.

“This day looks nothing like what’s inside of Samantha’s brain,” my daughter Viv, 7, said. She was referencing one of our two kittens, a grey tabby from a rescue organization that had joined our little family a few weeks earlier. “Her brain is a big old ball of exuberance!”

“It totally is,” I laughed.

It’s been awesome watching my son Jack, 9, and Viv carry the cats around, pet them, love them and then listening to their running commentary on all things feline in our house. And so far it’s a joy that hasn’t been completely ruined by having to clean litter boxes, buy expensive food or deal with the exponential chaos of adding two pets to our household.

But it’s true that the recent grey weather, the slippery sidewalks and the mornings plunged back into darkness can do a number on all of us – as March marches on, it’s difficult to turn my brain into a ball of exuberance, as Viv would say.

On a recent evening, I got the kids settled into bed for the evening and then sat at the kitchen counter, feeling restless. It was too slick to run outside. The basement treadmill sounded dreadful. I shot down every idea I had – even though I knew exercising would make me feel better. I’ve been a runner for 30 years, since I started high school, and it’s the most visible thread throughout my entire life. Through cross-country moves, career changes, marriage, kids, divorce, injury, all of it, one foot in front of the other has always saved me.

“Just go, even for a little bit,” my best friend said as he worked his way through a freelance assignment.

“I know,” I said. “I know.” And I gathered up the usual things and went down to the basement. I recently agreed to substitute teach spin classes for the Sanford Health wellness centers, so I grabbed an old iPod to scroll through my old teaching music, to see how dated it was and what I needed to update. (Turns out: All of it.)

About 7 miles later, I walked back upstairs a different person.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said. “Feel better?”

And I did – and this is why running and biking and yoga and walking and spending time outside has been a constant in my life. Sure, it’s kept from suffering some of the fates of aging and pregnancies – but more than what it’s done for me physically is what it’s done for me emotionally.

The mental health benefits of exercise are well-documented, and recent discussions have centered on whether doctors should more formally prescribe exercise to their patients who have anxiety or depression.

I asked Karla Harmon, an integrated health therapist with Sanford Health, what she sees with her clients and what she thinks of that idea.

If you haven’t met Karla, I can tell you this: She’s disarming, wry and quick to laugh. She makes you feel like she can relate to just about anything you’re about to say – and then give you a quick reality check full of empathy and common sense. This is probably a winning combination for a therapist, and it works out pretty well when you’re a writer interviewing her, too.

“Exercise feels so good, why don’t we do it every single moment of our life,” Karla laughs. “Why am I not thinking, ‘when can I get some exercise?’ Instead I think, ‘there’s cupcakes next door.’”

She talks about how people who have “busy brains” – which feels like code for anxiety, and which feels like I know exactly what she’s talking about – can benefit from even 30 minutes a day of moderate activity.

“It helps dispose of some of that adrenaline,” she says. “Folks who have some pent-up energy, who maybe have some trapped emotion, it helps them let go of those emotions.”

People who have anxiety tend to project way far ahead, Karla says, looking at all sides of every issue and seeing moving parts everywhere. That kind of examination can be so exhausting, you can be physically and emotionally drained before you even step into the gym or onto the bike path.

The first step is to get past that.

She said many of the women she sees know all the benefits – you have more energy, your clothes fit better, you’re healthier overall.

But that’s not always how people think, especially people busy balancing work and family and personal lives.

“We don’t ever ask if we can, do we want to,” Karla says. “We just see if we can. If we can, we’re going to fit it in.”

She says many women tell her they’re choosing between sleep and exercise – and they choose sleep. Or drinks with friends, sugary foods, or other plans that are immediately gratifying. It’s not because they don’t know better – they do – it’s because it’s not easy to retrain your brain.

“Often we look more for the quick fixes,” Karla says. “Most of us know how good exercise is for us. That doesn’t mean we are exercising.”

But when you do, and you make it a priority and a habit, you start to see the real rewards.

For me, making the time is a choice I have to make every day. It’s not easy – my recent Friday night was proof. I just wanted to sit on the couch with a glass of wine and let my mind spin. But I have a race coming up – putting something on my schedule always keeps me accountable, at least a little – so I knew I needed the miles.

And I know the times I’ve been taken out of the game – pregnancy complications or stress-fractures or whatever else has meant time off – I’ve felt terrible. It’s the social aspect of running with friends, or classes at the gym, the fresh air outside, the time with my kids as they ride their bikes.

All of that is what makes a difference for me.

On Sunday morning, I drove out to Good Earth State Park, one of my favorite places. It was still too icy to run the trails, but the top gravel loop was mostly clear. I did a loop up there for just over a mile and then ran up and down the long, long driveway into the park for 14 miles of hill repeats. It wasn’t easy, but I thought about what Karla had said on Friday when we talked: “Choose an event and visualize yourself doing it. Your brain will try to accomplish what you’re visualizing. See a happy face.”

I did that, up the long hill, cresting at the top and looping the parking lot before cruising back down and around the booth at the bottom. I imagined myself finishing each repeat stronger and stronger. I thought about the Zumbro 50-mile race I’m doing in April, for the second time, pictured myself coming through the finish, tried to remember the last few miles of each loop, put myself there.

I ran a negative split and felt better on the last hill than I did on the first. It doesn’t always work that way.

When I got home, Viv was eating buttered noodles and Jack was playing a video game. I ate a scrambled egg burrito and we all sat there, at the kitchen counter, ready for the rest of the weekend.

With friends. And family. And that feeling inside that only comes from making my own darkness visible, as William Styron says in his essay on his own battles with depression.

It’s interesting how often anxiety and depression are written about in literature. In a recent book of essays, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” by the wonderful Yiyun Li, she writes about how she struggled for years with depression and how she realized there was no ladder out of this life – every world is rimless.

This is her revelation: “A ladder is no longer what I am seeking. Rather, I want one day to be able to say to myself: Dear friend, we have waited this out.”

While I’m waiting, I run.

And read.

And write.

And all of it, I believe, makes time move faster, and my inner exuberance returns.

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