What Running Taught Me About Anxiety
My mind is not always on my side
If you asked me if I was a runner, I would say no. I’ve been running for exactly a year now, but it still feels brand new to me.
When I think about running, I picture a place where I’ve run or walked before.
In my head, the terrain never matches reality. The curves of the road are always sharper, hills always steeper, the side of the road more narrow, cars whip like the wind while my mind makes my projected self as small as possible on the side of the road that allows me a small semblance of safety.
In reality, the roads are never so threatening. And I should know this, I’ve run on them before. Turns move gradually enough to see cars coming around the bend, hills stretch long enough for cars to slow down when they see me — and if for some chance they don’t there is a shoulder on the road, putting multiple feet of space between myself and the oncoming car if needed. Things are never as bad as my mind wants to have me believe.
As my anxiety-prone mind slowly came to this realization about running, I thought to myself we may have a bit of a metaphor here. It dawned on me, in what felt like should have been an obvious (but wasn’t) realization that I might extrapolate what was happening here into other areas of my life.
My mind is very much centered on worry. Decision making, relationships, career — none of these areas of life are immune to an anxious mind. Should I have shared that information with this person? Do they think less of me? Is my partner happy? Should I stay in this apartment? This city? Is this the right career path?
But what if I could gently remind myself that the anxious mind is not the accurate mind. No matter how hard it tries, the anxious mind does not accurately represent the path forward. No matter how much air time we give it, the anxious mind is still a heavily scripted reality TV show. The characters may go by their actual names, the plot points may be born from actual events, but the way the story plays out has been selectively manipulated.
I can stress and let my tires spin out over my daily worries, or I can attempt to sit with the idea that my mind is playing tricks on me. The anxious reality will not be the one to play out in real life, it only exists to rage on inside my head.
Of course, remedying anxiety is not as simple as a mindset shift. But the mind is a powerful tool, especially in its ability to hurt or heal itself.
When I feel anxious, I remind myself that the only reality is right here, right now, as I sit writing this. I am okay. Maybe that is the only storyline I need to let play out right now. All anxious thoughts are timelines that have not yet happened, and most likely won’t. Even when terrible things happen, we can only deal with them in the present moment as they arise, not in our heads months and months prior. No amount of worry will prepare you for what comes next — trust me, I’ve tried.
In the first three months of 2020, I got the flu so bad I was in the ER twice, my triathlon running father had a heart attack colloquially known as ‘the widow maker’, and a global pandemic began. As a person who has dealt with anxiety all of her life, I didn’t see any of this coming, and nothing I had previously stressed over and obsessively ruminated over prepared me for it. But now, months later, here I am.
The truth I have come to is that my anxiety doesn’t serve me. It does not prepare me or make me better the way it’s trying to trick me into believing. It doesn’t make the run any easier.
The only guarantee of an anxious mind is its ability to take us away from the present moment. Good or bad, I prefer to spend my days in the reality of what’s going on right in front of me — to navigate my life and make decisions based on what is actually in front of me. This is no small task for an anxious mind, but just like in meditation how the goal is to keep bringing the mind back to the present, no matter how many times it wanders, similar is the goal with working on anxiety; to continue to make the choice to come back to the moment, no matter how many times this the mind tries to spin out in all directions of worry.
Right now I’m sitting, writing, breathing. That’s the only reality I need to focus on when the anxious wheels spin. Only when I go for that next run will I need to determine if the route is runner-friendly. If it turns out to be an anxiety minefield of narrow roads and sharp turns, I will turn right around and find myself a new route.