• Jennifer Symons

The Running Therapist: How Running Helps Me Manage Your Mental Health

Good day, mental health warriors. I am so excited to be joining Still I Run for another year of ambassadorship. Like all things in life, my mental health and running journeys are continuously evolving. I’ve been running since I was 12-years-old. However, at that age and throughout my teen years, I ran because I thought I needed to lose weight, not because I was in love with the activity. During those years, I would run/walk one mile and then become disappointed when I didn’t see immediate results. Fortunately, almost 20 years later, I love running more for what it does for my mental health than anything else.

Mind over Matter

In 2010, I ran my first 10K. I remember training for that race and running a five-mile loop by my home. I was about 2.5 miles in and panicked. In either direction, I was 2.5 miles from my house and I could not bear the thought of continuing on. I felt trapped. I walked part of the way back, running when cars approached so nobody would spot me walking. After that, I had no idea how I was going to complete a full 10K. However, race day came and somehow I ran the entire distance. When I finished, I was exhilarated. I ran 6.2 miles without stopping. My mind was so much stronger than I previously realized. And that’s when my running obsession truly started. The mental health benefits were immediately evident. Running for me became non-negotiable – I had to do it. After that first race, I bumped up to the half marathon. Since completing my first 13.1, I’ve run countless more halves, seven marathons, and a 50K. It blows my mind I can call myself an ultramarathoner, thinking about the younger me who, at one time, could barely finish a 5-mile run. What I discovered was that I was always physically strong enough, it was my mental strength that needed fine-tuning. I’ve had anxiety for as long as I can remember. For me, symptoms typically present themselves in the form of irritability, overthinking, planning excessively, and trying to control as much as I can around me.

Dealing with PTSD

In addition to anxiety, I have also been diagnosed with PTSD. This original diagnosis came from a sexual assault. Events that followed soon after compounded my diagnosis. When I was 21-years-old, a house I was living in Grand Rapids got broken into. It was a gruesome break-in. Alarming messages were written on countertops in Sharpie. Blood, vomit, and feces were thrown around in the bathroom. There were obvious disturbances to the underwear drawers of my roommates and I. Years later, I had a pretty good grip on my PTSD symptoms. I came to live in a new town, I felt safe in my home, and I was effectively using running to manage both my anxiety and PTSD symptoms. However, last summer something happened to make my PTSD flare up significantly. I was at home, by myself, and had just completed a run. Right before I was about to get in the shower I heard an unusual noise in my living room. I thought what I heard was my dog getting into something he should not be, so I nonchalantly made my way from my bedroom to the living room. What I found was my neighbor. He had ripped the screen off the window and his body was halfway through, climbing in over my couch. I won’t type the explicit language that escaped my mouth upon discovering this. Fortunately, after shrieking at him, he climbed out and went back home. However, nothing prepared me for the shock of watching my neighbor break into my home.

Self-Care

Just when I felt I was in a really good place with my mental health, my world was flipped and I crumbled. Because I work as a therapist, I realize more than most the importance of seeking professional help when needed. I called in sick to work, knowing I would not be able to help others in crisis when I was facing my own mental health crisis. I immediately got myself back into counseling and attended weekly. Of course, time was a huge factor. It took weeks before I was able to sleep through the night and months before I felt comfortable being home alone. I still check under beds and in closets when I get home to make sure no one is there. It’s been six months since that break-in. I am better now and continue to practice patience and self-care when my PTSD symptoms feel unmanageable. As I always do when I am having a hard time with something, I turn to what makes sense and feels right for me. For me, that is running. Running feels like my natural state. When I run, I feel like I am doing the thing I was put on this earth to do. I am so grateful for my ability to run. As a Still I Run ambassador, I want to remind people that mental health is just as important as physical health. I am not embarrassed to take time to care for my mental health. It makes me a better wife, friend, therapist, and person. For me, nothing does more for my mental health than running.

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