Running For My Mental Health – Winter’s Running Journey #3

Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that comes and goes in a seasonal pattern. It’s also known as “Winter Depression”. Now for me “depression” is a strong word and should not be used lightly. Although, looking at the symptoms: irritability, persistent low mood, craving carbohydrates – for sure -, finding it hard to get up in the morning… I’m ticking a lot of these boxes. But still, depression? I wouldn’t say that it’s a depression that I have. Maybe because I have a key that releases me from all those symptoms – apart from the carbs one. It is of course…running. Wearing many layers and a smile on my face, I know that a run is all that I need to give SAD a big kick up the hole. 

Today’s blog is an insight into some of the benefits of running that aid my own mental health. It also looks at some of the mental health benefits that we’re all guaranteed to experience when we run. 

It’s kinda funny that most people will take up exercise to benefit their physical health, but once they do, their physical health acts in a way that’s almost opposite of what they expected. Some of us will actually gain weight or lose such an insignificant amount that it clearly doesn’t match the effort we put in. Others will take up exercise to feel stronger and fitter, but after 2 weeks of training, be summoned to the sofa as our bodies ache and moan. The bad news is that the relationship between exercise and our physical health is strange. There’s no real telling how long it will take for you to notice the positive changes – they come eventually, you just gotta hang on in there. However in better news, when it comes to exercise and our mental health, it will – very noticeably – start working straight away. Whether it is through psychological or neurological – think of the brain – benefits, your mind will be thankful of you for exercising.   

Neurological Benefits of Exercise

This is the beauty of running. Whether you love it or hate it. Whether you think you’re great or rubbish. Whether you wear the coolest Nike gear or  hand-me-downs from SVP covered in paint. The neurological benefits of running are always gonna be there for you to avail of. All you gotta do is step outside that front door and start moving. Once you do, there will be an increase of blood flow to the brian. I mean brain. Sorry but I haven’t moved in a couple of hours. This increased blood flow to the brain will enhance your cognitive functioning as well promoting a host of other psychological benefits. 

Other neurological benefits come in the form of the release of hormones like adrenaline and serotonin.Why do we need these? Well, despite the bad press adrenaline is an essential hormone that prioritises blood flow to the working muscles and the brain while we exercise or experience stress. And then, serotonin – gets great press because it – helps regulate mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function. If serotonin was a drug we’d queing up for days to buy it. Thankfully it isn’t. You just have to start moving and it’s yours. 

This morning’s beautiful trail along The Boyne River ensured even extra levels of serotonin

As I said, these neurological benefits are an absolute side-effect of exercising. Whether you want them or not, they’re coming. The psychological effects of running are not necessarily as black and white, although they are generally highly positive to those of us who start and stay running. As in many runs over a period of time as opposed to Forrest Gump.  

Some of My Own Psychological Benefits of Running

Creativity

Do you ever find yourself with so much to do but no motivation to do it? So instead you go running? Only to come home and start ticking off all your To-Dos nearly effortlessly? This happens me quite a lot. It’s most prevalent when the task I need to do is something creative like write a blog or design a workshop. Going on the run would trigger a change in my brain’s neurotransmitters – endorphins, serotonin, adrenaline, and increase cerebral blood flow. And hence get those creative juices flowing. This is why many of your best ideas will come to you as you partake in cardiovascular exercise like running. Most of my creative achievements in recent years can be traced back to a thought while running. 

Enhanced Mood

My enhanced mood is presumably linked to the increased production of serotonin. But I do want to emphasise what means for me. Like most of you, I experience more frequent levels of low mood in the winter. In the winter: my diet is crap. I’m more sedentary. I binge watch TV. I’m more attached to my phone and social media. I’m colder. I see little sun. I drink more alcohol. All of which contribute to my lower mood. But when I go for a run, that mood just lifts magically. It usually takes 1 or 2 kilometers for me to start noticing it, but once I do, I stay happier for the rest of the run and usually the rest of the day. 

Self-Efficacy and Feelings of Control

I’m putting these together because the narrative in my head around self-efficacy and feelings of control is the same. In those moments of low mood I tend to give myself a hard time. I bicker with myself over nearing 30 and still living at home. Or nearing 30 and still not having a permanent job. In these moments I can often feel a weight on my shoulders as if my achievements to date are not worth a thing and I’m unlikely to succeed in the future. Thankfully these moments are few and far between. But I’m even more grateful to know that running is one of the tools that I can use to flip those thoughts on their head.

Running helps me revert back to rational thought. While or after running I tell myself how living at home is the only financially responsible option that I have right now. I congratulate myself on my achievements so far and on the fact that I changed careers away from perminancy, towards job satisfaction. Running reminds me that I can achieve anything that I put my mind to. And it reminds me to be grateful of the life that I’ve built for myself so far.

Runner’s High and Flow

-Runner’s High and Flow? They sound so airy-fairy.
-Well, they are. Until you experience them that is.

Runner’s high happens most times I run. I suppose it feels different for each person. For me, it comes as a combination of everything that I have explained so far and being mindful. Therefore when I run with music or a podcast – usually Blindboy or Second Captains – I experience all the neurological benefits, and many psychological benefits, but I’m less likely to experience the runner’s high – and I definitely don’t experience flow. For me to experience the runners high, I need to be aware of the stress and the pain. Aware of my ability to cope with it all. Aware of the sweat, the air and the heavy breaths. I feel the runner’s high best when I suddenly come to a halt at the end of a run and just lie on my back. Before stretches, cool down, water or washing myself. I just lie there and genuinely feel the blood pumping to my brain, bringing a cheesy grin to my cheeks. It’s class!

Bettystown Beach – Where the Magic Happened 

Flow is something that I struggle to achieve that often. I’ve only experienced it twice for sure. It is a mental state that you can enter when the difficulty of the challenge and your ability to achieve it reaches the perfect balance. It’s described as being in the zone but my experience was a lot more powerful than that. My most vivid experience of flow was when I was running into a strong wind on Bettystown Beach. I was finding it tough. But I knew to focus on my technique. I pumped my arms and legs rhythmically. I can remember breathing powerfully to that same rhythm. I kept focussing on that pumping and the breathing until I lost control. My arms and my legs kept pumping but I was no longer doing it. I can remember feeling like I was above my body – a little bit off to the right for some reason – looking down at it working away while I took a break and kicked back. The muscles in my arms and legs were now involuntary like my heart. They had no need for me to tell them what to do, they just kept going. I remember it beginning to fade as I ran towards an oncoming walker. And as I passed them, it was gone. I am craving that feeling again. I know that it’s in me, just waiting to reveal itself again. 

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I hope you enjoyed it. Like always, feel free to share it or comment with some feedback. I’d especially like to hear some of your own experiences of flow and the runner’s high to see how they compare to mine. Thank you, Brian.

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