On a cool, sunny April morning several months ago I toed the starting line of my first ever 5k, feeling like I was going to throw up. I had registered on an impulse because it seemed like a nice, healthy way to get active and be outside in the springtime. It was also an opportunity to step out of my comfort zone. As an occasional runner, I had told myself that I would run more regularly to train for the 5k, but life got in the way and come race day morning, the longest distance I had ever run was an exhausting 2.25 miles a couple days before the race. I had only ever run on a treadmill because I didn’t think I was good enough to be seen running out in public. The noisy crowd made familiar feelings of dread and anxiety well up inside, and it didn’t help that I felt like the only person in the sea of smiling faces who wasn’t having a good time. As I squinted down at my feet and shuffled toward the starting line, I couldn’t think of anywhere in the world I wanted to be less.
Looking fear in the eye
I had come to the race that morning with a close friend, but I told her to go up front and to start ahead of me, as I was too embarrassed to have anyone I knew watch me run. The negative, anxious thoughts started to flow: I’m not a real runner. What if I get out there and have a panic attack in front of everyone? I can’t do this. I’m going to make a complete fool out of myself. But at some point, something changed; subtly at first, but something about the positive energy of the other runners, the high-fives from our enthusiastic host and the upbeat music pumping at the starting line made me cautiously open my eyes a little wider. As I looked up, I began to see that what lay in front of me was, in fact, a golden opportunity to face my anxiety. Sure, I might not be able to do it, and sure, I might come in last. I might fall down or throw up or panic or lose control or any of the other things that scare me to death, but for the first time in my life I thought…so what? I had an opportunity to look that fear dead in the eye and do it anyway. When it was my group’s turn, I began to run. I ran faster and harder than I ever had before, stopping to walk the hills and then fly back down the other side of them, feeling as though I was literally outrunning my anxiety. Before I knew it, I was sprinting across the finish line to the sound of cheers, music, and happiness. Was I the fastest runner? Hardly, but I quickly learned that’s not the point. The energy of the crowd overwhelmed me, and I spent the rest of the day riding a tide of euphoria. Within a week, I signed up for a half marathon and a handful of shorter races, and with six months to train I embarked on a journey that has been changing my outlook on life and mental health.
Running helps my agoraphobia
Earlier this year, I was diagnosed with agoraphobia. I suspect its something I’ve likely dealt with all my life. I am now just a few weeks away from running my half marathon, and it’s no exaggeration to say that running has become a vital aspect of my therapy. If you’re not familiar with this particular anxiety disorder, agoraphobia is essentially the fear of being trapped in a situation from which escape is difficult. It’s a fear of panic attacks and an avoidance of the things that may trigger them. Things like driving on the highway, trains, airplanes, elevators, traveling far from home or even standing in line at the grocery store or sitting in a meeting are difficult for me. Agoraphobia can leave people housebound in its most extreme form, unable to step outside of the only place they feel safe. Therapy is helping me to be gentle with myself, to replace negative self-talk with positive mental imagery and to overcome my fears through exposure; running is where I put it all into practice. Running is where I get to show myself what I’m capable of and how strong I really am. It’s not easy and it places me very far outside of my comfort zone. Starting lines and races scare me so much, but it’s the fact that they fill me with anxiety that makes running so beneficial. My half marathon is on the coast and nearly two miles of the race is running across bridges – one of my major anxiety triggers. It’s a big race where we’ll be penned tightly into corrals at the starting line – crowds and the idea of being “corralled” both make me feel panicky. At 13.1 miles, the half marathon is the longest distance I will have ever run – that’s quite a long time to be “stuck” running a race, and it’s a big risk to publicly attempt that distance for the first time. But with all this in mind, I get to stare into the eyes of the dragon and run toward him until he retreats. I get to fully acknowledge my fears, face them head-on, and conquer them. I get to squash the self-doubt and negative thoughts and show myself that I am not weak. I don’t have to be ashamed. I am strong, and I can overcome.
Finding comfort in the race
The best part about running a race? The finish line is a massive celebration. I truly wish that all accomplishments in life could be celebrated the way runners celebrate finishing races. When you cross a finish line, crowds of complete strangers cheer loudly for you, music plays, cameras flash and smiling volunteers place a shiny medal around your neck. As someone who has days where just getting up, showering and getting out the door is a massive accomplishment, I often think, how fantastic would it be if we had that kind of public support and encouragement for all of life’s difficult tasks? If only we had more opportunities to cheer for each other! One of the things that makes anxiety, depression and other mental health struggles so difficult to live with is the feeling of isolation, the feeling that you’re the only one struggling or that you’re somehow broken for not being able to enjoy the things that other people enjoy. How I wish I could just show the world how terrified I was the last time I flew on a plane instead of desperately trying to appear calm, or explain why I’m sometimes too uncomfortable to eat inside a crowded restaurant. But guilt and shame make me keep my anxious symptoms carefully hidden, and I’ve gotten quite good at fake-smiling through panic. When running a race, I get to show my struggle, wear it on my face and be rewarded for overcoming it. People along the race course wave signs, cheer you on, hand you cups of water, and when you finish the race? They throw a big party for you! There’s something so beautiful in that. The other beautiful thing about running races is that you truly have to be your own motivation. As much as I value the encouragement from the crowd, I really run just for myself, to feel strong and capable. I’m not competing against other people; I’m competing against my own doubts and fears. The many miles I run in training add up to many mindful hours spent listening to upbeat music, practicing positive thinking and feeling strong. Since running uses up stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol and floods your brain with mood-boosting endorphins, for the rest of the day after a morning run, I feel a sense of elation and mental clarity. I like to imagine that running is rinsing out my brain, and as a result, I feel not just physically stronger after a run, but also more capable of facing situations that trigger my anxiety. Many studies have shown that running is a very effective treatment for anxiety and depression. Therapy and running have both become critical aspects of my journey to overcome agoraphobia.
Tackling the half!
This November when I run my half marathon, I’m going to get up that morning and face my demons. I’m going to choke down my breakfast despite anxiety-induced nausea, drive over those bridges to the starting line, get out, shake a little in my shoes and feel all the doubts and fears welling up inside…and I’m going to run anyway. Each time I do, I prove to myself that it’s possible to live my life in spite of my agoraphobia and that I have power over my anxiety. I’ll be out there with the knowledge that standing at that starting line is a really hard thing for me to do, but that thought isn’t going to stop me – it’s going to fuel me. Then the gun will go off, and I’ll leave that anxiety behind. And run.
Erin Apple is an environmental educator, gardener, yogi and college football enthusiast in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, rescue dog, Maine Coon cat and five chickens. She discovered running as a way to cope with anxiety and quickly fell in love with the running community.