Running for Mental Health

Longtime runners know running has a positive influence on mental health, but sometimes the lows of depression can derail even the most determined among us. We don’t want anyone to suffer in silence, so we wanted to share some thoughts about running (not running from) and depression. 

A woman runs while the sun creates a glow.
A woman runs while the sun creates a glow.

Leaving depression in the dust is sometimes as simple as continuing to put one foot in front of the other while running, but it can also sometimes mean you need to put one foot in front of the other and take the step to get help. We will share ways to know which category you might fit into and what to do about it.

Since mental health is a pretty common topic for runners and an incredibly important one, we will also explore what happens in your brain when you run, how and why you should keep going when you really feel down, and when to seek professional help.

When Depression Doesn’t Go Away

Most of us experience happiness and sadness and everything in between. These feelings may be in response to something happening at that particular moment, or they may be the result of a thought, a memory, or some other less tangible stimulus.

It is natural to feel depressed now and then, especially if you have experienced a loss, trauma, or disappointment, yet depression can also arrive without an obvious cause. 

Depression will sometimes linger. When it does, it often causes negative feelings like despair, helplessness, and loneliness that can rob us of energy, motivation, appetite, sleep, and even the ability to make our normal decisions or engage in our typical behaviors.

It is normal to experience depression sometimes, but if you are experiencing prolonged depression with the aforementioned negative feelings, it is time to assess the situation.

A sad man sits at a table with his head down and his chin on his arms.
A sad man sits at a table with his head down and his chin on his arms.

Some questions you may want to ask yourself in an honest manner are questions like, “Am I crying more often? Have my sleeping and/or eating patterns changed? How often am I angry? How often am I fatigued? Do I feel alone? Has my behavior changed? Am I placing myself in danger with my choices?”

For some of us in certain situations, it can be difficult to know the answers to these questions right away. It helps to get a journal or notebook to write down your feelings and the circumstances, assess your behavior, and document your appetite and sleeping patterns. 

Keeping track of all of this may sound complicated, but the documentation can assist you in determining if these negative feelings are an ongoing issue or a temporary slump you see signs of overcoming by progress in your documentation.

Although running can improve mental health, running should not be viewed as an automatic fix for depression. If you are experiencing prolonged depression, reaching out to a therapist is the first step and the most important, and running while working with a therapist is a wonderful combo.

Whether you determine your depression is a temporary mood or an ongoing struggle, regular running can give you an abundance of positive effects to help you battle depression.

Your Brain on Running

Running is like a delivery service to your brain that brings nourishing blood to enhance clarity and chemicals called endorphins and endocannabinoid, that naturally elevate your mood. This is what is known as “runner’s high,” and it is best achieved by pushing yourself without overdoing it.

Exercise like running is connected to the production of new brain cells. Scans of competitive runners show endurance running alters and enhances certain brain connectivity associated with working memory and other functions.

Running is an activity we were born to do. It is now believed that the need to run long distances is the reason we evolved the way we did. In fact, the endorphins we mentioned that create “runner’s high” were probably designed to help our ancestors power through the struggle of running after prey that was likely faster but less adept at enduring long-distance running.

Running can teach you to focus and overcome. Your body may be fatigued, but your mind can push you past your own limits. This ability is exhilarating, infectious, and can extend to other areas of your life, allowing you to naturally build confidence and self-esteem.

When we run, we can free our minds to focus only on the moment. For those who have difficulty meditating due to the swirling and insistent thoughts, running may offer stress-relief and the added bonus of a more positive view of your own ability to overcome obstacles.

Lastly, running can lead to a healthy lifestyle, which will also improve your attitude about yourself. Eating healthier positively impacts mood, and seeing results from your own strength and endurance is another needed boost in the battle against depression.

The Benefits of Therapy

Sometimes we can’t run past our problems with depression or other mental illnesses. Also, sometimes depression is too severe for us to start running or stay motivated to run as symptoms of depression often include a loss of interest in activities and loss of energy.

An experienced therapist can illuminate aspects of depression we may not be able to see for ourselves, set obtainable goals, and find ways for us to recognize and cope with the symptoms.

To find a therapist, consider asking someone you know and trust who has been to a therapist for a recommendation. You can also check running groups on social media sites to try to get a recommendation for therapists who also appreciate running. 

Some runners are open to talking about running, depression, and therapy. You might be surprised to find out how many runners struggle with symptoms like yours.

If those efforts don’t yield results, you can always Google local therapists, visit websites, and read therapist bios to see if any of them seem like they might be a good fit.

Don’t be afraid to find a different therapist if you don’t feel comfortable with the one you visit. People are all different, and therapy is only effective if you can establish trust and be honest with your therapist.

A Plan of Action

If you do determine that your depression is ongoing or difficult to overcome on your own, be consistent with therapy. Be open and honest about your feelings.

As for a plan of action for running, the most important thing to do is simply run. If you are struggling to get out of bed or leave your home, set very small goals of even a short jog. If we can force ourselves to get past the initial reluctance to do it, we will often push ourselves to keep going.

If you have been a runner prior to this, conjure the times you may have felt like you could go no further yet did. If you can get back that determination, that ability to push past pain or discomfort, you may be able to run through the obstacle that is your depression.

If you are new to running, push yourself past what you initially think you are capable of, even if you start out walking or jogging. Running is not a win/lose prospect the way we think of most sports.

Running is personal and consists of personal goals. Make and break those goals, and the behavior becomes a habit that can be quite uplifting. If you need help to work through your depression to get started running, seek help from an experienced therapist. 

If you need help with any aspects of running, reach out to a running coach and/or other runners for help and motivation, even if you start out online on social media in running groups at first.

Speaking of being social, another good thing to do to fight depression is to run with others. Runners are wonderfully supportive of other runners, and we all need some support from time to time. Running with a friend, a running group, or a racing team can really lift your mood. If you are local to the Jacksonville, Florida area, reach out to our PRS Running Club or Racing Team.

Joining together with others to run a marathon or any other kind of race can be a fun, social activity that can elevate your mood.
Joining together with others to run a marathon or any other kind of race can be a fun, social activity that can elevate your mood.

The more we all talk about mental health in our community, the more we help ourselves and each other. Runners have always been positive with one another, so let’s continue to do so for mental, as well as, physical health.

If you want to discuss ways to increase motivation with one of our coaches here in Jacksonville, Florida, feel free to reach out to us at Personal Running Solutions.

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