Running as stress relief

Running for stress relief: are you running to escape intrusive thoughts rather than dealing with them?

Posted by for Wellbeing

Running can be a fantastic mental health tool – science says so. But it’s also quite a potent and potentially addictive medicine, says runner and Strong Women editor Miranda Larbi.

Running is one of the world’s best stress relievers. Millions of people like me regularly lace up, not only to feel good and get a good cardio workout but to exorcise more difficult emotions. Over the course of 45 minutes, you go from feeling achy and tired to being consumed by anger and resentment, before finally moving towards joy, happiness and relief. 

If you started overwhelmingly het-up from work dramas, annoying home situations or general existential angst, you’re almost guaranteed to finish a run feeling calmer.

Running most mornings, I don’t necessarily run for immediate stress-relief but if I miss a day running (or cycling), my mood and motivation is dramatically lower. My ability to process emotions and handle everyday stress is dependent on doing that kind of explosive, all-consuming movement. On the occasions when I run in the evening, I tend to feel a lot of the negative emotions I’m usually unable to tap into; I don’t remember anything I’ve been brooding on once the run is finished.

That cycle of intense emotion followed by calm or blankness isn’t uncommon. There’s plenty of science to back the idea of running being an effective stress-reliever. A 2018 study by Brigham Young University found that running while under stress can actually protect the brain and memory. 

A 2020 review of the relationship between running and mental health, published in the International Journal Of Environmental Research And Public Health, looked at over 116 studies and found that “running… can improve mood and mental health and that the type of running can lead to differential effects”. It also found, however, that running could have adverse associations, particularly when it came to exercise addiction. 

Running for stress relief can spiral into exercise addiction

We’re all au fait with exercise addiction from a weight loss perspective but we don’t often talk about the negative impact of allowing exercise to become an emotional crutch. I recently took part in a study that tracked mood and energy during an enforced exercise break, and I found that my mood declined by a whopping 40% during the week I stopped running. I’m not an especially angry or volatile person, but I’m a lot more so when unable to run.

On the face of it, turning to running as a go-to stress reliever sounds pretty tame. If you do have a lot of stress or pent-up emotion, you could do any number of more damaging activities to find shelter, like drinking yourself into oblivion. But not being able to process stress without moving is still a problem. 

“Exercise can be a wonderful way to help us process our thoughts and feelings, but it can also become very unhealthy,” explains Ruth Micallef, registered counsellor and mental health expert. “It can be useful to ask ourselves the following question: does running allow me to process what I’m feeling and thinking? Or does it simply let me ‘detach’ and ‘bury’ it in my mind? If it’s the latter, it’s likely that running has become an unhealthy coping mode.”

Micallef suggests that over-exercising can be a kind of ‘purge’; in her clinic, she sees more people who treat running and other forms of movement as a purge far more frequently than being sick or using laxatives. That’s obviously the extreme end of relying on running, but it’s important to be aware of how these things can escalate.

Running is a key part of my own self-care. If I stopped running, I wouldn’t get the very real energy, mood and community benefits. But I do want to be able to feel and manage stress and anger without needing to go out for a 10k. “A mental health first aid kit should always allow you to ‘process’ rather than ‘suppress’ emotions,” Micallef explains. 

If there’s anything in your toolkit that isn’t working, she says we need to have the courage to change it up. That might mean changing the type of activity you do, scheduling in a weekly catch up with friends instead, trying a non-negotiable self-care evening at home, trying therapy or perhaps trying a walking therapy group like Walk Talk Walk. “Often creating a mental health first aid kit is simply trial and error,” says Micallef. “I think it’s rare to get it right on the first try.”

And if you have started to wonder if your exercise regime is getting a bit out of hand, then it’s time to seek help. “That support can come in many forms – from friends, family or registered professionals like myself with a specialism in the area.” She warns that scheduling your life around exercise, battling intrusive thoughts about exercise or following an exercise regime that isolates you from friends or activities are all signs that your go-to coping mechanism isn’t healthy. 

For more mental wellbeing thoughts, visit the Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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Miranda Larbi

Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.