For Some of Us Running Is the Key To Managing Depression And Anxiety by Scott Douglas
Running puts everyone in a better mood. But for some of us, our miles are key to managing depression and anxiety.
[Author discusses his depression and his friend Meredith’s anxiety]
…We do have one key thing in common: Meredith and I run primarily to bolster our mental health. Like all runners, we relish the short-term experience of finishing our run feeling like we’ve hit reset and can better handle the rest of the day.
What’s not universal is our recognition that, without regular running, the underlying fabric of our lives—our friendships, our marriages, our careers, our odds of being something other than miserable most of the time—will fray. For those of us with depression or anxiety, we need running like a diabetic needs insulin.
Meredith and I discovered this decades ago, and now researchers and practitioners are starting to catch up. Studies show that aerobic exercise can be as effective as anti-depressants in treating mild to moderate depression (and with side effects like improved health and weight management rather than bloating and sexual dysfunction).
In countries such as Australia, United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, official guidelines include exercise as a first-line treatment for depression.
How does moving the body change the mind? A growing body of work—both in the lab and with patients—shows that there’s more to it than endorphins, the well-known opioid the body produces during certain activities, including exercise.
The emerging, more sophisticated view of running to improve mental health also takes into account long-term structural changes in the brain as well as subjective states like mood and cognition. Science continues working to explain the theory behind what we runners already know from practice.
…Of course, everybody gets sad and worried at times.
What distinguishes those feelings from clinical depression and anxiety? In the short term, therapists often look for significant changes in emotions, behavior, and psychological functioning.
They also focus on how symptoms such as feeling agitated, threatened, and uncomfortable (for anxiety) or joyless, lethargic, and apathetic (for depression) interfere with people’s everyday functioning.
…The more-immediate cognitive focus of a typical run also contributes to its efficacy. “When we’re overwhelmed with anxiety and depression, shifting from the big picture—all the frustrations, worst-case scenario thinking—to the small, in-the-moment task of doing something that approaches a goal, like running a four-mile loop with two hills, will kick off a positive feedback loop that continues throughout the run and takes our thinking and emotions out of the trench of negativity,” says Laura Fredendall, Psy.D.
…A short-term mood boost thanks to endorphins and endocannibinoids is one thing. (Granted, one much-appreciated thing.) But where running really helps with mental health is over time, thanks to a change in brain structure. A review of research published in Clinical Psychology Review concluded “exercise training recruits a process which confers enduring resilience to stress.”
This appears to occur because regular running produces the same two changes that are thought to be responsible for the effectiveness of anti-depressants: increased levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, and neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons.
…As Ekkekakis notes, you have to be fit to really get the daily benefits that can lead to structural changes. Of course, you also have to get yourself out the door, which can be especially difficult if you’re depressed.
…A hallmark of depression is self-defeating, absolutist thinking—“everything is harder than it should be,” “there’s no pleasure in my life,” “it’s always going to be like this.” I’ve learned that lacing up and hitting the roads is my best way to break free from such thoughts. On a daily basis, running reminds me that I can overcome apathy and torpor.
I found this to be an absolutely fascinating article and recommend the entire thing.
You Can Write Your Way Out of an Emotional Funk. Here’s How. by Susan David