This post is the first in a series of articles on RunningPhysio looking into mental health and running. It's a huge topic in the running community and many people run to help their mental well being, so we are very lucky to have Liz to share her story with us. Liz is a blogger in her own right and has a fantastic blog which I have to admit is one of my favourites, you can also follow her on Twitter – @4races4cities. It's a very personal story but one I'm very glad she felt she could share with us…
Twelve years ago, my Mum took her own life.
Initially, I wrote ‘my Mum killed herself’ at the end of that sentence, but I deleted it. ‘Took her own life’ sounds warmer somehow, doesn’t it? It’s less harsh, and those black words seem less stark against the white background of this blog post.
I have spent less time, however, writing about my own personal struggle with mental illness. When Tom asked me to guest blog for him, I wasn’t sure what to write about. My own running blog is quite light-hearted and a bit silly, so when Tom suggested I write about the affects of exercise on depression and anxiety, I realised that it would be a good opportunity to share my experiences, in the hope that it might strike a chord with someone out there.
Anxiety has been part of my life for a very long time. The grief surrounding my Mum’s death was channelled, not through crying and pining, but through severe anxiety, culminating in terrifying panic attacks and OCD. I saw different types of therapists and was prescribed strong anti-anxiety medication, at one point I was very nearly sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
Years passed by, and I just learnt to live with my mental health problems, I became a shadow of the person I was and lived half a life – anxiety and OCD clung to me tightly, suffocating my every move, and I couldn’t shake them off.
You’re probably wondering why I’m sharing this on a physiotherapist’s blog, right?
Perhaps you came here to read a post about IT band pain, or curing your plantar fascitis, or find specific exercises to strengthen your leg muscles.
You’re probably a runner.
Well so am I.
I haven’t always been a runner. Running kind of crept up on me two years ago, in the midst of the heartbreaking end to my eight-year relationship. My anxiety levels at the time were sky-high and I was struggling to cope. I don’t know what provoked me to put on my trainers and go for a run.
I guess I didn’t really know what else to do.
So I just ran.
I didn’t go far, only up to the end of the street and back, but it was enough, enough to quell the panic that rose in my chest and quieten the racing thoughts that darted back and forth in my mind. My heart rate soared, and yet instead of culminating in a panic attack, the way it always did, I felt euphoric and alive.
The next day, I laced up my trainers and went out for another run, this time venturing a little further. I had taken part in a 5 and 10K race in the past, and knew that my legs were capable of covering a longer distance, so I just kept going. I think I ran about 5K in total, but it could well have been 26.2 miles. I felt strong, capable and empowered. Again, I returned home exhausted but elated. My anxiety levels seemed to lower and I felt like my head was clear for the first time in years. Running seemed to distract me from the cycle of worries that fed the anxiety – something really resonated deep within me, and unlike my past forays with running, this time it stuck.
I noticed a local half marathon advertised on a lamppost, which I saw when, yes you guessed it, I was out running. I impulsively signed up for it, knowing that I would have to train hard. I scoured the Internet for half-marathon training plans, and bought myself a pair of proper running trainers, clothes and a Garmin GPS watch. My days were arranged around my running schedule, and I constantly read books and magazine articles to garner tips and advice on becoming a better runner. Weeks went by and I started to feel so much better, I lost weight and began to pay better attention to the way I fuelled my body so that I could run faster and for longer. Most importantly, I slowly felt the powerful grip of anxiety releasing its hold on me.
My attitude towards the way I viewed myself also started to change. I had always thought that I wasn’t capable of doing things; I’d spent so many years hiding in the shadows, too afraid to step up and challenge myself, and yet here I was, training for a half marathon on a whim and pushing my body and mind to places I’d never been before.
There were days when I wanted to give up.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times that I would sit under a tree in the local park, part of my running route, head in hands, crying with frustration. Running challenged me in ways that I’d never experienced – it pushed and prodded and hurt and dared me to run further, faster, and harder. It would have been so easy to just bail, let myself be beaten, but I didn’t. I wouldn’t allow it.
I don’t quite know how running relieved me of the years of suffering with my personal demons; there’s been a lot of research over the last few years, and scientists aren’t quite sure either. All I know is that it worked for me. These days, I am free from anxiety and the panic attacks, and I can honestly say that I am the happiest I have ever been. My life is filled with enriching experiences, energy and laughter. And running.
It’s all about the running.