Running as an experiment to reduce anxiety and facilitate healing

Most days I wake up anxious. I didn’t label that uncomfortable feeling until I googled, “a general sense of impending doom” one day. A few weeks ago I started running as an experiment to build my fitness, and as an unintended positive side effect I started observing my anxiety reducing dramatically after a run. It doesn’t last for the entire day, but for someone used to experiencing anxiety most of the time, a few hours of relief — no, even a few minutes is a significant effect.

Endorphins that are produced after running has been attributed to why running decreases anxiety, but according to a book I’ve read we have to run at a certain distance with a certain efficiency to get our brain to produce that effect. Since I am terrible at running I have only been running 2 sets of 500 metres of running followed by 500 metres of walking totalling only 2km every morning, I am not sure if that is enough to produce endorphins, but perhaps it may take less effort precisely because I am terrible at it, I do not know.

I would like to offer an additional theory to why running helps anxiety. This theory is pieced together from all the books I have read (I’ll add a book list at the bottom).

When we receive a threat our body goes into a flight or fright response. Most people recover after some time, but chronic trauma/anxiety sufferers have their flight or fright response stuck in a frozen state because there is no “platform” for them to recover. For example, a sense of safety, relief or escape. For chronic sufferers there is no such sense, since we are receiving the sense of threat perpetually without a window. After all long while, the brain just gets used to this feeling, even if we do physically move to a safer position. So we get stuck in a flight or fright loop or spiral:

Running completes the flight or fright response

In ancient times we probably had to run to save our lives when we were in danger. However in modern times a threat may not put us in physical danger, i.e. a predator chasing us, yet it is perceived as a threat anyway. For example, it could be someone yelling at us — a boss or a family member — or it could be high levels of chronic stress from family or work. We don’t or can’t run from these situations, in many cases there are no means of escape. Our brains never get to perceive the sense of safety required to complete the flight or fright response to put our bodies into recovery. So we’re left with high levels of adrenaline running in our bodies which causes a hyper-vigilant state, also known as anxiety. Since our brains are so efficient (and stupid at the same time because we can’t really differentiate real or perceived threats) we no longer need real triggers to spike anxiety, all we need are memories or events that trigger those memories of fear.

Why I think running can potentially serve as an outlet/completion to the flight or fright response:

  1. Our primal brains are primed to recognise running as a flight response (whereas leaving the office might not),
  2. The cooling down process after running triggers a recovery (parasympathetic) response that our brains previously didn’t get to trigger because we don’t process modern stresses.

The importance of cooling down

I think how we cool down after intense exercise is paramount to reducing anxiety. Previous attempts of running made me more anxious after. The key difference is that I now practice deep meditative breathing after a run. I actually learned to do this by accident. I was experimenting with how much my heart rate decreased after (heart rate variability is known to indicate fitness level and predict mortality) intense exercise using my apple watch, trying to see if it made a significant difference if I practiced deep breathing. It did, and I theorise that the conscious deep breathing I do has an additional effect on my psyche apart from stimulating the recovery response: conditioning my brain to believe I can be safe and relaxed after having high levels of adrenaline.

My experimental healing system

Running is part of an experiment to heal my body sustainably. Apart from chronic anxiety and depression I also suffer from chronic migraines, fatigue, eye pain and body ache. My current theory: they are all inter-related as an outcome of the body’s inflammatory response to chronic stress.

Under chronic stress-induced anxiety I am in a perpetual hyper-aroused state which means my body is always tense and being flooded with stress hormones. I think the long-term effect of this is that my body is conditioned to believe it is in danger all the time, producing an inflammatory response to counter that. Studies have shown that chronic inflammation is leads to chronic diseases:

I am hoping that running, along with a controlled low to moderate carb diet and meditation will provide enough beneficial effects to slowly heal my body in the long-term through reducing inflammation and generating healing neurological and hormonal effects:

This is just an abstracted over-simplified diagram. I hope to write more in depth and detail about how it works. Meanwhile I have appended sources if you would like to know more. As all experiments go I am not sure what is the eventual outcome, or if my strategy will work. Running could make my health worse if I am not careful. I am also not sure if I can sustain the experiment long enough to create a meaningful result. I am on my 22nd consecutive day of running in the morning — my previous record was only 4 days before I gave up, so I am cautiously optimistic. Again, I hope to share more about my learnings, observations and progress.

This is not medical advice. Diagrams drawn loosely and crudely on an iPad with Procreate.

Sources & additional reading