Thursday, August 23, 2018

Anxiety Part 7: Mission to Moscow

Part 7 of the mental health series - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5Part 6

In November of last year, I signed up for a half marathon.

It was kind of on a whim.

For a long time, I'd done next to no physical activity in a day. I'm a pastor, and most of my week is spent either writing sermons, or writing emails, or in meetings, or visiting with people in their homes or in the hospital. All of these activities involve sitting. Then I'd get home in the evening, sit down to eat dinner, and finish out the day by watching TV on the couch.

I was sitting down. All day, every day.

I wanted to stop being such a lazy piece of garbage.

I used to run in high school, but more or less stopped running after that (with the occasional 1-2 month effort to get myself exercising again...those always failed as well).
High school ended 16 years ago.
I stopped running roughly half my life ago.

I decided one night that I wanted to start running again. However, I know myself, and I know that I'm not too terribly self-motivated. So in a spur-of-the-moment decision, I signed up for a half marathon.
It cost fifty bucks.
And I wrote about it on social media, so that all of my friends would know, and I'd have some public shame if I didn't go through with it.
Paying money and the possibility of shame are good motivators for me.

Months went by, February came, and I ran the race. I didn't really want to stop running, though, because I was healthier and feeling better about myself. So I signed up for another race.

And then another.

Physical health wasn't the primary reason that I kept running, though. There was a much bigger reason.

I noticed that on days when I ran, my mental health would be better, and on days when I didn't run, I was in a much worse head space.

I normally run on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. I noticed that whenever I'd skip a day, that day and the days following would be terrible.

For example, if I ever skip running on Tuesday, I tend to have a panic attack on Tuesday night or Wednesday. I'll also feel incredibly low and depressed until Thursday, when I run again. I don't know exactly why this is, but it's been proven true repeatedly.

I'm no expert, but I'd imagine that different amounts of exercise are probably good for different people. However, I personally find that without around 4 good runs per week, my mental health becomes much, much worse.

Exercise has been shown to improve mental health in people, so it makes sense that I'd have worse days when I don't run.

I started running because I wanted to stop being lazy, but that's not why I kept doing it. I kept running because it was making me feel better. It was helping me cope with other things in my life. It was allowing me space from other, more difficult, parts of my life four days a week.

So I keep doing it.

I don't always love it. In fact, just the thought of going on a six mile run bums me out most of the time. But it's helping me, so I keep doing it.

If you're someone who suffers from mental health problems, I'd encourage some sort of exercise. I don't know all of the science to back up this recommendation. I just know that it's helped me.

I don't have many tips for how to get going (the first month is by far the worst). But here's some things that have helped me:

  • Sign up for an event. Specifically, if you're wanting to start running, sign up for a race. There's nothing like dropping 50-60 bucks to get you moving. You're never going to get the money back, so you dang well better have a shirt and medal to show for it.
  • Start putting your running clothes on immediately when you think about it. I read an article a couple of years ago, and I can no longer find it (if any readers find it, send it to me and I'll link it here). The article said that whenever we are deciding whether or not to do something, we have a 20 second window of time to get started. If we begin the activity within that 20 seconds, we'll almost certainly do it. If we don't get started within the 20 seconds, we won't. So if you're sitting on the couch, wondering whether or not to go running, stand up immediately. Start putting on socks. Make sure you get started within the 20 seconds, or you're not going to do it.
  • Finishing is the point. This one's really just for me. A friend recently saw my time from a race and said to me "I thought you'd be faster. You used to run cross country in high school." Personally, I don't run competitively. For me, finishing is the point. Getting to the end is the goal. I don't worry too much about time. There are going to be days I run faster, and days I run slower, and those things aren't what's important. The important thing is doing it. Finishing is the point.
  • Run in a loop. When I run around the park close to my house, I'm constantly thinking about the fact that I can quit and go home at anytime. When I run to the corner of Portsmouth and Willamette, I'm 3 miles from my house. I either have to circle back or con someone into driving me home. When you run in a large loop, you have to keep going.
  • I like to listen to podcasts when I run. Most people seem to have a playlist of workout music that they listen to when they exercise, and that's great (pro-tip: if you do have one of these playlists, Disconnected by Face to Face. You're welcome). For me, though, music just reminds me how long I've been running. If I listen to 30 songs, it feels longer than when I listen to 2 podcasts. I'd rather listen to 2 things than 30 things. Also, podcasts let me zone out and think about something completely unrelated to my actual life for an hour. I listen to podcasts that make me laugh and have nothing to do with my normal life. Better than podcasts, though...
  • Run with friends. If you can find someone who will run with you, it's so much better. Most of the time I don't have anyone to run with, because most people seem to work out in the morning, and I run in the afternoon/evening. But when I do have the chance to run with friends, the time goes by much faster, and I don't get nearly as tired. It's easier when all of us are suffering together.
So that's it. Running has helped my mental health greatly. Other than therapy, it's been by far the most helpful practice for me.

I'm fighting my anxiety and depression with endorphins.

Side note: This whole "name your numbered blog posts after the same numbered movie in a series" idea was not a smart one. Very few movie series run past 2 or 3 sequels. I'm really scraping the bottom of the barrel here, and I still have six more posts to go...

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