It all started with my friend, Neha (who does have an amazing capacity to persuade me to partake in activities I would usually avoid), suggesting we take on the Balmoral Burn – a 420m run up a steep hill. Since then we have been caught up in the cycle of entering another race while under the influence of post-run euphoria; a cycle not even broken by a forced hiatus due to a window-opening related neck injury. This process has been supported by a sense of obligation unintentionally instilled in me by Jarrat. His excitement that I have exercise goals to train towards and sincere efforts in preparing appropriate training regimes have prompted me to produce effort and performance that will adequately reflect his skill and dedication as a personal trainer. Finally, of course, these factors are reinforced by the fear of social humiliation that accompanies stepping out in a large crowd of strangers, wearing fitness gear.
More difficult to rationalize is how an activity as seemingly meaningless as running could have any value in moderating the impact of mental illness. I have spent some time pondering this surprising outcome and settled on five main reasons.
Firstly, no matter how bad I feel before a running session, I inevitably feel better when I have finished. It may only last a little while, but, when I’m sick, it is a moment of light in an otherwise rather dark world.
Secondly, there is quite a lot to think about when you’re running (putting one leg in front of the other, trying to move your arms in sync with your legs, not falling in holes or running into trees, breathing), which forcibly distracts my mind from the negative thoughts that constantly crowd in. However, even though there is a lot to think about, the thought processes are not too difficult for my cognitively impaired, depressed brain to cope with.
Thirdly, it’s hard not to feel a level of physical discomfort when running, which is a good antidote for some unpleasant symptoms of a depressive episode. If I’m overwhelmed by mental anguish, feeling devoid of emotion, experiencing psychological numbness or having doubts about my grasp on reality, running provides real, physical feedback that is difficult to dismiss.
Fourthly, when running, it is not socially unacceptable to look physically drained, appear a little unkempt and have a strained expression on your face. So, depressive symptoms that would otherwise isolate me from people tend to promote a bond with other runners.
Finally, running produces physical evidence of achievement, like changes in muscle tone, officially recorded race times and medals (just for finishing!). Unlike other achievements I have made, these are vey difficult to attribute solely to chance.
I’m still unable to speak the phrase “I’m a runner” without an ironic smirk, or even truthfully state that I actually enjoy the activity. However, I have to admit that adding running to my health regime has fostered resilience and boosted functioning, not only physically but also psychologically. Of course, as with the other life-changing experiences that occurred by accident, persistence with running has only been possible with the encouragement of others. Jarrat deserves particular praise for his ability to differentiate between personality based self pity and psychologically based emotional distress, and adjust my training accordingly.
Incidentally, if you are now so interested in depression, you’d like to read more about it, ” I Had a Black Dog” written and illustrated by Matthew Johnstone is, in my opinion, the most precise and concise book on the subject.
By Stavroola Anderson