I couldn’t escape anxiety — then I learned to run from it

    20 October 2016

    Last year I went through a rough patch. I felt constantly anxious and despondent. I struggled to see the point in anything and found it hard to remember a time when I had thought otherwise. Every morning I felt dread before I had even got up.

    I went for counselling and, while getting things off my chest helped, my edginess always returned within a few hours of a session ending. Eventually, I found another escape: running.

    The inspiration came from an unlikely source: snooker legend Ronnie O’Sullivan. I was browsing in Waterstones and his book, Running, caught my eye. The blurb read: ‘I used to rely on drugs and alcohol, but now I’ve got the healthiest addiction going — running. This book explains how running has helped me to fight my demons and allowed me to win five World Snooker Championships.’

    I used to hate running, only dragging myself out of the door after much persuasion from friends. This time, for whatever reason, was different. Rather than counting down the minutes until I could get home, I immediately felt the edge taken off. The next morning I was much more relaxed. I headed out again, and soon I was hooked, cutting short revision sessions (I was still at university then) to head out for another run.

    There are, I’m sure, plenty of stories like mine about the powerful effect of exercise on mental health. There is a lot of evidence to back the idea up, too. Research by Monika Guszkowska, for instance, found that aerobic exercises reduced anxiety and depression and alleviated symptoms including low self-esteem and social withdrawal.

    So should doctors be prescribing exercise to anxious and depressed patients? The evidence here is unclear.

    Research by James Blumenthal, clinical psychologist at Duke University, found that exercise is an effective treatment for mental health problems such as depression, ‘improving depressive symptoms to a comparable extent as pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy’.

    A Cochrane review found that although exercise can reduce symptoms of mental health problems like depression, the effect was small and didn’t seem to last after participants stopped exercising. However, this study stated that more exercise sessions have a larger effect on mood than a smaller number.

    My experience certainly supports the last claim. One run wouldn’t make me feel better for more than a day or two. It needed a constant commitment, with more sessions in a week having a much greater effect. This is where O’Sullivan’s ‘addiction’ comes in — you always need another hit or those unwanted thoughts are going to give you a kicking.

    As the months went by, I was running so often that I found it no trouble to increase my distances. I signed up for a marathon in Manchester and started fundraising for Mind. By this point the exercise had definitely played a substantial part in me regaining stability.

    I ran the marathon in the spring. I made it, just about, thanks to incredible support from the crowd. I was a reticent runner transformed.

    I’m not sure I will be doing another one in a hurry. But one thing I do know is I will never stop running.