I've experienced panic attacks and anxiety since I was 16. I prefer to say 'experienced' rather than 'suffered' as I find it a more positive way of framing it in my mind. I've tried to pinpoint why it started at this age, but from what I now understand about anxiety, it doesn't always have a clear trigger.
If you have never experienced a panic attack, it is quite hard to convey the feeling of sheer terror that takes over your whole body. And if you have, you'll be all too familiar with the host of physical effects it has; racing heart, shaking limbs, shortness of breath, and (often in my case) vomiting. The first few times this happened to me, I had no idea what it was or why it was happening. Back in the mid-90s, in the midst of the lad and ladette culture of the Britpop era, mental health issues were much less talked about than now, so there wasn’t much out there in terms of help and advice.
This led me to retreat inwards and avoid certain situations that I thought might set off my anxiety. I became a master at disguising my anxiety and managed to hide it from everyone, brushing off any incidents by explaining that I was just feeling unwell. But the one person you can't hide from is yourself.
Things really came to a head when I went to university. Being away from familiar people and surroundings sent my anxiety through the roof. I was having back-to-back panic attacks day and night. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, and every day was a constant cycle of fear. This was the absolute low point in my life, and I knew I wouldn't be able to keep going like this for much longer – which only fuelled the fear more.
At this point, I reached out to my parents and told them what had been happening. They put me in touch with a family friend who was a psychologist. They were able to explain what I was experiencing and why. Most importantly, they reassured me that I wasn't losing my mind, and this knowledge was a huge help in my recovery from that low point.
I wasn’t a runner at this stage of my life, but what I did do when I felt anxious was to walk for hours on end. I think I instinctively knew that getting outside and filling my lungs with fresh air was good for my mental state. Gradually some of these walks became runs, and I started to feel the benefits of the feel-good post-run endorphins flooding my system and calming my mind.
However, it wasn’t until ten years ago that I started running consistently. I wish I could explain to my younger self how beneficial running regularly has been to both my mental and physical health. When running becomes part of your routine, it starts to act as a preventative treatment for the worst of your anxiety. It helps you manage stress better by burning off the nervous energy and also gives your mind the space it needs to think and process things.
I’ve found that pushing my physical boundaries has helped me to push my mental boundaries out further. Fear tends to have the effect of closing in the walls around us and making us much more introspective. But just the simple act of getting outside and physically challenging yourself can start to make your world seem bigger again.
It’s also about control. Anxiety tends to make us feel helpless, as we passively experience everything it throws our way. Whereas actively deciding to go running and doing something positive for ourselves puts us back in the driver’s seat and reinstates that sense of control.
I believe that any exercise can be beneficial to our mental health. Even just getting outside and breathing in the fresh air will help to calm an anxious mind. Personally, I love to go running in nature. There’s something incredibly restorative about being close to the natural world, and I find that the big open spaces give my thoughts more room to roam free.
My running has been a great tonic for all the stressful and anxiety-inducing events of the last year of the pandemic. I now know that by maintaining my running, I also maintain better mental health, which creates a virtuous circle of benefits in other aspects of my life. I encourage anyone who is experiencing their own anxiety or mental health challenges to give running a go. It’s not a cure, but it is a powerful treatment that’s fun, free, and comes with a ready-made support network in the shape of the global running community.
Clint Lovell is a keen amateur runner, a qualified Level 2 Fitness Instructor and his book, Run Through Barriers, is available on Amazon.