As a kid I remember my emotions feeling so big it seemed they couldn’t physically be contained in the room I was in. To me, they were palpable, and taking up space, big and heavy, they surrounded me.
I guess that I have always been like this- feeling in a big, intense way.
While this certainly has its advantages in the pleasant and joyful contexts, when things swing the other way it’s hard to feel something so deep and so painful; especially when it appears from the outside that the circumstance just doesn’t seem to call for it.
As a teen I remember literally, running away from these deep feelings when they became too much. As in, I would actually head out the door in whatever I was wearing and run as far as I could, “away” from the pain I was feeling. Usually, after a few blocks, I couldn’t breathe very well and not being in proper footwear and attire led to extreme discomfort. But for a few minutes, being sweaty and out of breath gave me something else to think about- it released me from whatever pain I was feeling, without actually having to truly confront it and deal with it.
This worked for a while here and there until I experienced a period of pain as an undergrad so deep that I could not run away from it. After a particularly bad week of sleeping all day, a friend dragged me to the gym with her where we participated in a kickboxing class. For the first time in weeks I was actually moving my body and getting the blood flowing. It was tough, I didn’t want to do it, but with each shadow jab I felt a little lighter.
By the end of the class I remember feeling good, so good, that I cried on the way back to my dorm room.
I just wanted to feel this good more often, but it seemed so impossible. I remember later that day talking to a friend and saying out loud the words I was never able to say before; “I think I’m depressed”. She encouraged me to seek help, and thankfully I did.
My story does not end there of course. While I had quickly learned that staying active played a key part in getting my life together again as a depressed undergrad, my depression didn’t just go away one day because I decided to work out regularly. In fact, while I continued to remain very active in my early 20s, the next obstacle that was thrown my way was uncontrollable anxiety that felt like it was just handed to me one day, out of the blue.
At first, I was not able to fully recognize that something was not quite right. I began making lists for everything, always worried, terrified, that I would forget something. These lists began to control my life in a way that I couldn’t explain. Some days and even some vacations were spent just making sure things were crossed off, instead of actually living in the moment and enjoying each “item”.
This sense of overwhelm and desire to complete what I felt I “needed” to was all-consuming at times. At first, it was easy to blame it on my perfectionism and Type A personality. But as this spilled into every other area of my life I realized that these feelings of trying to control everything were not normal. It reached a tipping point when I would drive to my internship every morning with butterflies in my stomach and then sit in my car once parked for a good 15 minutes convincing myself to go inside. There was no real “reason” to feel this way and I could not control it. In a sense, my lists were a way I was able to feel control over my life at this time.
I would sweat every time my phone rang, worried that the person calling me was going to tell me a family member had died. I was afraid to get in a car with another driver in fear of getting in an accident.
My fear of the unknown and all possible terrible outcomes sent my head in spirals, I had trouble sleeping and would often feel on the verge of a panic attack when I thought about anything beyond my current task at hand or day. Unfortunately, regular physical activity had taken a backseat to graduate school and juggling two part-time jobs. But one day, I felt the overwhelm and lack of control bubble over and was reminded of my childhood feelings- I could not keep them in the room and I just need to get away from everything. I laced up my shoes and headed outside, telling myself that maybe I would just feel a little bit better if I went for a run.
It sucked. I was breathless within 3 minutes and sweating through my shirt. I stopped to walk every few minutes and cursed myself for thinking this was a good idea. However, after a few minutes I realized the feeling of panic had subsided.
I probably only ran about 2km that day, but I returned home with a clearer mind and a sense of calm I hadn’t felt in weeks.
A few days later when I started feeling the same way, I laced up my shoes again. I don’t know what came over me, but for some reason I told myself that day that I would train for a 10k race. Over the next few weeks, I started to run regularly when I felt overwhelmed. It wasn’t long before I fell in love with the feeling of getting out there. I fell in love with running the way I fall in love with most things in life- obsessively, completely and all at once.
At first, I loved how it humbled me, I had thought I was fairly athletic and in shape, but running seriously kicked my ass . Over time though, it gave me a sense of control as things became slightly easier. When I laced up my shoes, I knew what to expect. I knew when I would tire and where I would turn around and how far I could do. Eventually, I was able to start pushing myself more and more- conving myself to run 100 more meters when my mind was yelling “STOP!”.
For the first time in my life, I realized I could challenge my thoughts and push beyond them, and, that my thoughts were not always right- I COULD run a little bit further if I wanted to.
After a few months, I found myself in a place where running gave me space to actually work through things. Instead of trying not to die with each painful breath, I was able to fall in to a rhythm, to run and think and recognize my obsessive thoughts as merely thoughts. I was able to be in that moment while correspondingly work through the unpleasant physical feelings it gave me- and I realized how much that related to my anxiety that I dealt with in my day to day life. It was okay to feel unpleasant things, accept them for what they are (temporary) and keep pushing through them.
Running has since become a major part of my life. As soon as I feel myself slipping, I know what I have to do to feel better. That’s not to say it’s easy to just lace up my shoes when I feel my mind take over with negativity and worry. Sometimes it takes everything I have to lace up my shoes and get out the door. It has also helped to have a community to push me and support me and get me out there on the days when I would really rather not. Running has challenged me to push beyond my self-imposed limitations and not let thoughts define me. In running away from myself, I have actually learned to not shy away from myself.
I have learned to come home to my body and my breath and who I am- anxiety and all.
While there is no question that professional help and medication can turn a life around, it is the feeling of pounding concrete that has truly changed me.
It is so easy to look at physical activity as a way to look a certain way, but in reality, it has the power to not only change your body but change how you FEEL. Learning the connection between mind and body has been the most pivotal and important lesson I have learned in my life.
My depression and anxiety are parts of me that I have learned to live with, and physical activity is an important piece of my toolbox that I often reach for when life just seems to be too much. Running is always there for me, steady as can be. One foot in front of the other. Left foot, right foot, breathe in, breathe out and repeat. It pulls me back to the ground when I need it the most.