Learning to outrun anxiety

How struggles with running helped me overcome struggles with mental health

Carolyn taught herself to love running instead of fearing it.
Credit: 
Carolyn Svonkin

A lot of people hate running. It’s not the easiest sport to like—it can feel boring, interminable, and even painful. However, growing up, my dislike of running went a bit deeper than most.

I wasn’t an athletic kid. I had thick glasses by the first grade and spent my recesses inside furiously scribbling down stories instead of playing tag. I matured young, and while my friends stayed prepubescent throughout middle school, any girl who hit puberty early can tell you that nothing about looking 18 at 12 makes you want to run in a sports bra at a crowded track meet. 

I was also an anxious kid. I worried constantly, anticipating stressful events months ahead of time with dread that sat in my stomach like stones. I remember sitting on the floor of my room one afternoon crying because I couldn’t imagine shouldering anxiety’s weight any longer. By the time I was 10, I knew the thoughts in my head weren’t the same as the ones that occupied my friends’. I knew anxiety before I knew it had a name.

In middle school, my aversion to sports and my anxiety collided. Anxiety began to manifest in athletics: I wasn’t good enough because I wasn’t fast enough, I wasn’t popular enough because I wasn’t fit enough.

At my school, being skilled at sports meant people admired you, creating a sense of belonging. When everyone put on identical uniforms, differences were erased. I associated athletics with what I longed to be: easygoing, popular, and effortlessly skilled.

The worst part of athletics was running. The building block of so many sports, I was pathetically bad at it. I watched my classmates complete lap after lap without breaking a sweat in gym class while I trailed behind, praying I wasn’t the slowest.

I began to dread even the prospect of running, convincing myself that I was incapable of keeping up with my classmates. That’s what anxiety does: it makes challenges insurmountable. What’s a rolling hill to those around you becomes Everest in your mind.

That’s what anxiety does: it makes challenges insurmountable. What’s a rolling hill to those around you becomes Everest in your mind.

In the eighth grade, our gym curriculum included the beep test. None of my classmates thought much about it, but it preoccupied me for months, a sickening feeling rolling beneath my skin like seasickness. My parents took me to a therapist who had me draw maps of my thoughts, hoping to prove the brittleness of the links between them. It didn’t help. I knew what I was thinking didn’t make sense, but the paths my anxious thoughts took were too well-tread at that point to be re-mapped.

The morning of the beep test didn’t feel like morning because I hadn’t slept. As my mom drove me to school, I started shaking. We turned around and went home. When I went to school the next day, no one mentioned that I’d missed anything important.

In the ninth grade, I had to complete a triathlon. The thoughts I’d left with the beep test came back, happy to dig into the grooves they’d left. I spent the entire year obsessed with the three-kilometre run, unable to get it out of my head. My dad practiced with me on weekends, hoping to make it easier. It didn’t matter. The obstacle was inside my head, not beneath my feet.

After that, I avoided running until I came to Queen’s. In Kingston, I didn’t have dance classes or gym appointments like at home. However, I'd come to realize that, ironically, exercise quieted my anxiety more than medication or therapy. 

I started with 20 minutes of running on the treadmill at a time, building to 30, then 40. For a year, I woke up on running days feeling sick with anxiety. But eventually, things changed. I thought my anxiety was made of titanium, but every time I ran, I felt like I was grabbing it and tearing it apart as easily as paper.

I started to become a decent runner. I would wipe down the treadmill afterward and feel athletic. I went off my anxiety medication, and instead of using them to chase off anxious thoughts, I began to outrun them.

When campuses and gyms were shuttered due to the coronavirus, I realized I'd lost access to a treadmill. I’d never run outside before; it felt like starting over completely. My anxiety rushed back—it had been waiting in the wings.

I spent the first weeks back at home doing other workouts, but I itched to lace up my running shoes. Anxiety necessitates coping mechanisms, and once you find one, it’s almost impossible to quit. Running had become mine.

On one of the few sunny days in March, I dragged myself to a trail near my house and started to run. I needed something underneath my feet to calm the anxiety in my head.

That run was hard. It was stressful to replace the steady treadmill clock with uneven road. But as I neared the end of the path, I began to enjoy the feeling of the sun on my shoulders and the breeze in my ears. That was enough to make me run again the next day.

My treadmill running had trained me well, and I began to push myself to run distances I never would’ve thought possible. I signed up for the May 50K Challenge to raise money for multiple sclerosis research, and challenged myself to double the distance to 100 kilometres—97 more than the triathlon that consumed me in the ninth grade. I finished 100 kilometres in two weeks, and I then kept going.

I’m not the best or the fastest runner. By the tenth kilometre, I don’t look pretty or carefree like my classmates did in high school. Some days I hate every single step, and I feel just as unathletic as I did growing up.

But I don’t let myself turn around and go home anymore. I was terrified to restart with outdoor running, but I’ve fallen in love with it. Instead of staring at a clock, I can enjoy the world around me, watching as winter turns to spring, and spring to summer.  

Mostly, I spend my runs thinking. Running is an unusually quiet sport—there are no yelling teammates or balls to hit. When your body’s on autopilot, all there is to do is think.

Mostly, I spend my runs thinking [...] When your body’s on autopilot, all there is to do is think.

Once, I was terrified of that. Anxiety makes your thoughts something you want to run from, not towards. It used to be that the longer I was in my own head, the more I’d spiral. Sometimes it’s still like that—I’m never going to outrun how much I overthink. Even with music blasting in my ears, my thoughts are louder. But if I drew a thought map for a therapist now, it’d have pathways anyone could follow. I think about family, friends, and what I’m having for dinner. I try not to think about how many kilometres I have left.

More than anything else, I think about the anxious kid I used to be, and how proud she would be now. I laugh at how, if she saw me, she’d think I’m cool and popular and at ease—traits I associated with athleticism when I was younger—when I’m really just taking one step at a time. Left foot, right foot, a little longer than I think I can, a little farther than yesterday. Turns out, despite years of stress about running, it’s just like anxiety: it takes practice and patience. And all you can do is put one foot in front of the other.

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