How running helped reclaim my body from anxiety – 20 minutes at a time

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When I am running, I am body and breath and thumping footsteps, and when I finish my lap of the woods, I feel capable.

This is my love letter to running, an activity that quite literally keeps me on my toes and helps me to focus on something other than my storm of emotions. Running has healed me more than my failed cocktails of meditation and ‘mindful living’, and has provided a short, thrice weekly therapy for me. Through running, I have begun to reclaim my body from the clutches of anxiety. The only way is up (although I’m still reluctant to run uphill).

For the past few months I have been living in a body that doesn’t feel like my own. It’s definitely mine as my hands have been typing furiously on my laptop at work, and my legs have carried me to all the places that I need to go. But, it has been in these steps and predictable movements where I have realised that everything has felt unfamiliar, as though my body has been acting of its own accord. Communication between my body and my mind has been severely lacking, and I have paid the price.

My mental health has always been unpredictable, even from a fairly young age, but what I’ve come to realise now is that my regular, weekly routine kept my mind and body on track. When I lived on Herm and boarded over to Guernsey for school every week, I devised a routine that would not only help me with my organisational skills that leave something to be desired, but also coping from living away from home. Pack my bags on Sunday. Catch the boat and get a taxi to school on Monday. Attend school. Catch the bus to the boarding house, and so on. As the years went by the routine changed as I tried new things and met new people, but it mostly stayed the same.

During this time, I went through what I consider a few distressing experiences in my life. These experiences, paired with living away from home and day-to-day school stress was a recipe for disaster. But, I coped thanks to my regimented routine.

Having this routine and attempting to keep on top of living in two places, going to school and sometimes working, meant I kept a firm lid on my past and I was happy for it to stay that way. Even when I moved to the UK I quickly developed a routine I could fall into, but in the hands of coronavirus, this quickly fell apart.

Fast forward 16 months and my mental health is in tatters. I didn’t know it because I was so focused on my work and my journalism qualification, but the breaking point arrived in the form of an exam, where I suffered severe shakes and restlessness following the exam, resulting in a call to NHS 111.

The months passed by. I eventually told my parents about my phone call and was later enrolled in a weekly Managing Stress online webinar with a mental health support charity. I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone at this point and start Couch to 5k, something I hoped to attempt last year but never got round too.

The feeling was instant. As soon as I started a slow jog on the dark and damp ground of my local country park I knew I had found something special. What this was, I wasn’t yet sure, but I persevered with my run and enjoyed listening to Sarah Millican’s dulcet tones as she guided me. Running has given me a place to burn, emotionally and physically. It offers me a space where I can think and focus on anything other than how I am feeling. Running, to me, feels like returning to my former place of serenity and peace whilst pushing myself outside of my comfort zone. Because let’s be honest, I’m not a natural runner.

The impact running has had so far on my life has been subtle, but extremely beneficial. External changes have been minimal as running, for me, is not about my physical appearance, rather helping what’s inside. I have learnt how to feel without compromising the precarious position of my mental health. When I put my Skechers on and press play, I re-enter my body as a new and focused being.

As I write this, I am at the end of week four on the Couch to 5k programme. This week has been tough, but it has pushed me beyond my physical limits and has encouraged me to keep ploughing forwards. With running comes the understanding that taking things one step at a time (quite literally) is ok. Running offers me a 20 minute respite from my mind, and for that I will forever be grateful.

The time will come when I will eventually have to address what’s going on ‘up top’, and that will take a lot of strength and courage. But for now, I will keep building myself up towards that day. Who knows, I may even run toward it headfirst.