A few years ago, after the birth of my third child, I found myself in the depths of crippling anxiety. I worried about everything – how terrible I was at my job because I had three small kids at home and was utterly exhausted, my shaky marriage (because we were utterly exhausted), my messy house (again, exhausted – you get the pattern now, I’m sure), how terrible a friend I probably was, what people I knew must think of me, what the teenage boy at my local paper shop thought of me… pretty much everything.
Anxiety is the most common mental disorder, affecting one in 13 people globally. A University of Queensland study found anxiety is especially common for those of us in Australia, New Zealand, North America, and Western Europe, while countries in the Middle East and Asia report a much lower rate of clinical anxiety.
As a sporadic exerciser throughout my adult life, I knew that my mental health was always better when I ran. But inertia is a terrible thing. I was too anxious to exercise. The idea of spending time alone with that nasty little voice inside my head that told me how awful everything was, was too intimidating to contemplate.
Even though I knew it would make me feel better, my mind played every trick in the book to try to prevent me from going out. I was too busy. Someone had to cook dinner. The children needed me. Someone should really wipe down those dusty skirting boards in the bathroom. Again, you get the idea.
Getting from this situation of being frozen by anxiety to proactively spanking its bottom and putting it to bed with exercise is a tough but important step. Integrative psychologist Leanne Hall agrees that exercise has a significant role in treating anxiety.
“Exercise helps to directly lower cortisol (the stress hormone) and it triggers the release of endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, all of which work to improve mood and lower anxiety,” she says. “It also provides an outlet for all of that anxiety-induced adrenaline that builds up over time. And it can help to reduce muscle tension and can help with sleep and associated depressive symptoms.
As a sporadic exerciser throughout my adult life, I knew that my mental health was always better when I ran. But inertia is a terrible thing. I was too anxious to exercise.
So to get out of the Catch-22 of needing to exercise but feeling too anxious to do so, I started to make little deals with myself. It started with just lacing up my shoes and closing the front door behind me. I figured if I could do that, that was a fine start and I should be happy. Then the next day, I challenged myself to do the same, and then go to the letterbox. Then I walked around the block. After that I started heading for the local forest, which was five minutes away from my house (and a great place to hide from the general population).
Hall agrees that starting small is important. “We all want to see quick results when it comes to exercise. It’s important to set realistic goals and to start simply by getting moving. It doesn’t matter for how long, just move.”
After I was walking for 10 minutes or so a day, I introduced running. I did the Couch to 5K program, which gently introduces short bursts of running in between longer stretches of walking. Any time I felt like it was too much, I dropped back a week or two in the program. It was always baby steps.
It was gradual, and sometimes there were two steps forward and one step back (no pun intended), but the trajectory was undeniably upward.
I’d beat myself up sometimes, if I struggled to keep up with a day in the program, or if I missed a walk/run because I was feeling especially anxious and couldn’t leave the house.
But I kept my eye on the big picture, which was freedom from anxiety. So I tried to remind myself that it didn’t matter what I did on a particular day – it was more about a general upward trajectory.
Little by little, I became better at leaving the house each morning, and better at running. And what do you know, my anxiety started to abate. It was gradual, and sometimes there were two steps forward and one step back (no pun intended), but the trajectory was undeniably upward.
One year after I started running to alleviate my anxiety, I ran my first marathon. I came 3562nd, but I couldn’t have been happier if I’d won it. Crossing that finish line was a massive victory over my anxiety. I know it will always be there, but I’ve got its measure now, and I’ll never let it take over my life again.