Running to Ease Social Anxiety

3 reasons it worked for me

Photo by Hunter Bryant on Unsplash

When I was 21 years old, I started running, and it was purely for physical reasons. I wanted to lose fat. Of course, everyone knows that exercise does wonders for your health, but that didn’t matter to me at that point. On a scale of 1–10, my self-esteem was a solid -5, and I couldn’t care less about the health of my body. I just wanted to look good for others.

Little did I know that running had the power to change my life.

When I started running, I was a loner and suffered from an intense fear of people. I couldn’t point to a single activity I was good at.

Today I am confident about my abilities. I can hold a conversation. I can go out with friends and enjoy myself thoroughly.

Running was the catalyst for me to turn my life around.

Here are three reasons why.

Improved self-esteem

How do you increase self-esteem? By doing things that make you feel good about yourself. For me running was “that thing.” I went from not being able to run for longer than ten minutes to running almost daily and completing several marathons.

My fitness improved, and so did my self — esteem.

With every drop of sweat I left on the trail, I left a piece of the insecure me behind. With each kilometer added to my weekly mileage, my trust in my capabilities grew.

Feelings of pride crept in.

I knew that I was in charge. My achievements were not dependent on other people. Only I was responsible for how much work I put in. How much I ran. How far I ran.

Most importantly, no one had the right to judge if I was good enough. No one assigned a grade to my running anymore. In school, physical education was the subject where all of your classmates knew how you performed.

And everyone knew I sucked.

I was laughed at, ridiculed, and of course, always the last to be chosen to join a team. Intense anxiety was a constant companion. How often I skipped school when PE was on the schedule, I don’t remember. It was enough to cause the remark “in danger of failing” to appear on my school report. Every year anew.

When I started running in my 20s, none of this mattered anymore.

I was enjoying myself, and no one could take that from me.

With my increased self-esteem, my self-image slowly changed. I started setting running specific goals and achieved them. Over time I began to see myself as a person who can push herself and overcome challenges. This affected other areas of my life, and I started to believe I was capable of more.

Capable of handling stressful situations and life challenges.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is a method used to treat social anxiety. You face the situation you fear, and gradually the anxiety surrounding that situation reduces. Different variations exist, but the main point is that you are actively forcing yourself to face your fears.

Running forced me to face my fears surrounding panic attacks.

During the worst times of social anxiety, I experienced intense physical symptoms in certain situations. My heart was racing, my mouth felt dry and I was shaking.

The worst was the feeling of loss of control.

It was scary, and I was afraid of myself. I would panic even more, thinking I had a heart attack. Often I knew nothing better than to remove myself from the situation.

Through running, I began to understand my body better and learned to get used to the physical symptoms that I experienced when I was anxious.

This increased self — awareness helped me to talk myself through the panic. I would tell myself it was just my body overreacting, I am safe and that it will pass. I focused on my breathing — another skill that I picked up through running.

Another positive effect of running was that I had a topic I felt safe talking about.

Other people at work started to chat with me about running and the fitness lifestyle. This made me feel more connected and gave me a feeling of belonging. It also pushed me further. The question if I would run a race popped up more frequently. I was afraid of signing up, even though I was already running half-marathon distances regularly on the weekends.

It was not the fear of running that far that kept me from entering but my fear of the crowds. Eventually, I took the plunge and signed up for smaller half-marathons. The anxiety about the masses of people reduced with every event I attended and over time I learned to enjoy being together with other runners.

Changes in the brain

The elusive “runner’s high” was quickly the main reason for running longer and longer each morning. An intense feeling of euphoria that I never knew before had magically found its way into my life.

It is hard to put yourself down and keep worrying about what other people think of you when you feel invincible.

Research also has shown that exercise, especially in nature, is helpful in promoting positive moods. And even though the exact reason why physical activity produces a feeling of well-being is debated, it is well established that it exerts positive effects on the brain. Some research points to neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These tend to be produced in higher concentrations during exercise and help reduce depression and anxiety. Other research points to the amygdala, which is a region in your brain. It plays a central role in the processing of emotional responses, such as fear and anxiety, and is directly associated with conditioned fear. Exercise calms the amygdala and therefore reduces anxious feelings and symptoms.

Managing anxiety

In my story about how I triumphed over social anxiety, I stated that developing a sense of self was the key. Running is an excellent tool for developing that awareness. It has given me the mental strength I needed to take on more significant challenges, to face my “fear of people” and turn my life around for good.

fitness coach, science nerd & writer

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