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Anxiety – does running help?

It’s dark. Your heart is beating really hard and really fast. It’s literally pounding against your chest and you can hear it. When do you ever hear your heart? Where are you? You’re lying down in bed. You try to sit up. You can’t. You feel a heavy crushing weight against your chest and you literally cannot sit up. Heart still pounding…

You remember that first aid course you did recently and the description of how a heart attack can feel – a feeling of impending doom and a vice like grip on your chest. You wonder if this is that. Your heart beats faster –  I’m only 25, how can I be having a heart attack? you think to yourself –  You try to scream, but terror takes the sound before you make it (sorry MJ) but this is actually exactly how I felt.  I was lying in bed half awake, half asleep, unable to move,  but I was very much panicking.

It had all started with an asthma attack earlier in the evening so when I was describing this to the receptionist I called to make a doctor’s appointment she made me an appointment with an asthma nurse.  I got to see the asthma nurse relatively quickly, but I was still very shaken up.  When I described my symptoms, she was concerned about the asthma, but not about my heart literally trying to break free of my chest and the shooting pains down my arms.  “Oh, you had a panic attack, so we’re going to put you on a preventer inhaler as well…”

Wait?  WTF is a panic attack?  Why did I have one? How can I never have one again?  These questions weren’t answered because I didn’t ask; I was too scared.  In fact it’s never been investigated because it was so dismissed, but a few years on I can make a guess that as a result of my grief of losing my father, and my grief of losing my health – my newly diagnosed asthma, I had an acute moment of panic, otherwise known as anxiety.

Luckily for me, this was a one off event, but it was VERY scary.  And its likely a result of taking too much of my asthma inhaler incorrectly, which sent all the meds to my bloodstream at once and very quickly to my heart, rather than into my lungs where it could do its job of helping me to breath.  I can and could solve this.  But for many people, anxiety is a condition they have to live with every day, and it can really affect your ability to function day to day.

I decided to write this blog post for similar reasons to writing the one about depression last year. To help break down stigma surrounding the condition and to help enhance understanding of the condition. Recent news would show that there is actually a lot less stigma associated with mental health conditions and that actually, we do talk about it more. Prince Harry speaking about his demons that he has only recently started to seek counselling for 20 years after his mother’s death. That fantastic 2-part documentary Mind over Marathon that appeared a few weeks ago.  

Whilst the stigma is broken down, it is never completely gone, but perhaps one more article added to the body of work on anxiety may help one more person understand the condition better and change their attitude towards those around them who suffer.

What is anxiety?

When someone experiences extreme worry or apprehension without any tangible threat, this is known as anxiety. It is perfectly normal to experience symptoms of stress, but there are 2 things we need to consider. Firstly, some people will find certain situations more stressful than others. And secondly, if the feelings of anxiety are persistent and chronic, this can be quite debilitating.

Over 12 million people visit their GP each year for mental health problems, most of which are anxiety and depression that are stress related.

Symptoms of anxiety include feeling worried all the time, feeling tired, unable to concentrate, irritability or anger, sleeping badly, feeling unreal and not in control of your actions (depersonalisation).  Those affecting the body include palpitations, tightness in chest, sweating, frequent urination, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, muscle tension and pain, gastrointestinal upset, dizziness, fainting.

The anxiety we experience as a normal response to actual events is distinguishable from clinical anxiety disorders (Hand et al, 2009).  The real challenge is when someone faces these feelings day in day out, making it very difficult to carry out a normal life.

Deirdre Coyne Specialises in using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques to treat people with social anxiety disorders and she says: “Social Anxiety is a surprisingly common disorder or phobia which causes people intense fear, panic and feelings of general anxiety in some or all of the social interactions most of us enjoy as part of our everyday lives. These can be meeting unfamiliar people, working with the public, or being required to take on more challenging activities that put us under scrutiny from others, such as public speaking.

The feelings become a disorder when they are excessive, irrational and impact negatively on a person’s quality of life. Without treatment it can develop into a longstanding condition.”

If you feel this is you, drop her a line at  to see if she can help d.coyne

How do runners experience anxiety?

This is a running blog, so I better get back on topic now. When I was researching for this article, I did a shout out in a number of facebook groups full of runners.  Now I often do this if I need a bit of help and case studies for my writing, but I don’t usually get such a strong response.  I posted in 2 groups on a Sunday evening, and by Monday morning 20 people had messaged me saying they wanted to help.  Now, not all of them answered my questions, but the answers I did get allowed me to form a broader picture. And here’s what I found:

#1 Anxiety is very common. And it seems an awareness of the problem is step 1 in coping with it  – no surprises there.

#2 There may be some hormonal connection – now I will confess that I didn’t investigate this further, and perhaps someone who is a scientist who knows the answer can write to me to explain, but I had a fair few women write to me to say that their anxiety developed in their teenage years (puberty), and others that wrote saying their anxiety started when they were going through the menopause.  Both huge hormonal shifts.  Another said that her anxiety significantly worsened after she had had a child and suffered with Postnatal depression – another huge hormonal shift.

#3 There seem to be 2 main approaches to treating anxiety, and anyone I spoke to, the running or exercise seemed to come independently of the treatment for their anxiety.  The 2 main treatments – medication and talking therapies.

Does running help?

Almost everyone I spoke to took up running or exercise for the usual reasons most people do so. To feel and be healthier, to achieve some sort of goal, such as couch to 5k, to lose or control weight.  Almost everyone found that running helped them to feel more in control of themselves and their lives, alleviating their symptoms and helping to sort through the feelings of worry that build up to contribute to their anxiety.  In many cases, the exercise has helped people to ditch the medication.

If I think I have anxiety, how should I start running?

From an exercise perspective, similar to prescribing exercise for those diagnosed with depression, we are encouraged to focus on process rather than outcome goals.  This means aiming to exercise 3 times per week, rather than aiming to lose 2 stone for example.  But most importantly start where you are. If 3 times a week brings you feelings of anxiety, then set a goal you can cope with, perhaps its once a week for now?

Considerations for what exercise you should do relate to exercise guidelines for healthy adults (150 minutes moderate intensity exercise per week and 2 strength/resistance training sessions per week) unless you have other conditions, that can affect your ability to exercise, or you are taking medications that can affect your ability to exercise.  Again, if you have concerns about this, seek professional advice – best to look up a personal trainer with an Exercise Referral qualification who has further interest in mental health.

If anything in this article has raised concerns for you personally, then please go and speak to your GP. None of us have to suffer in silence. And most certainly we should treat this illness as we would any other, and seek professional help.

What about you? If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear how running has helped or hindered your anxiety. Perhaps you have some advice for someone who’s starting out on their running journey, but struggling because of worry.  Post in the comments below to remind them that they are not alone.

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Angela Isherwood

Angela Isherwood is the founder of I Run Success
She is a REPs Level 3 Personal Trainer, a Run England Running coach, and a multiple marathon runner. She is a London Marathon Good for Age runner, a Boston Marathon Qualifier, a parkrun Run Director and Trainer for Goodgym Colchester.

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