Ask-A-Salty: Anxiety

Got a question? Just ask!
Got a question? Just ask!

“Hi there! I feel funny posting this to your page but was wondering if you had any insight into running with anxiety disorders? I think it makes me wonky, but it also mimics dehydration and fatigue and low blood sugar so it can be hard to tell.”

Nervous in Nebraska

Hello, fellow anxious person. Thanks for sending your question despite feeling funny about it. That deserves a gold medal right there! As our resident mental health runner, I’d love to help.

Anxiety, like all mental health conditions, can be confusing because its symptoms are both mental and physical. On the mental end, the anxious mind struggles with overactive thinking and over-analyzing. This makes it hard to focus and think rationally. On the physical end, anxiety can cause us to experience all sorts of uncomfortable body sensation, including sweating, rapid breathing, feeling shaky, nausea, dry mouth, and others. You are correct that some of the physical symptoms of anxiety overlap with some of the physical symptoms of low blood sugar or dehydration.

Between anxiety’s mental and physical symptoms, experiencing it can be a whole lot of fun. NOT! But anxiety does not have to relegate you to the sidelines. Here are some practical tips for running while anxious.

14317583_334723740194812_6116718597136004421_nSome Discomfort Is Ok

When we feel discomfort or pain there is usually a desire to get rid of it. This is uncomfortable, this hurts, I won’t be able to do this! are common thoughts. In actuality, a little anxiety is a good thing. For starters, it means we care. It’s also the body’s way of protecting itself from unknown threats.

The problem we literally run into is thinking every little sensation is a threat. We also may experience fatigue after the fact because the body is working overtime to assess how dangerous these threats are. But if you know ahead of time and you work toward accepting that you will experience some discomfort or strange sensations while running, that these are normal and not a threat, the situation can improve and you can push yourself a little more and a little more over time.

Reframe It or Rename It

Especially when racing, a little anxiety really can be a good thing. But do you know what another name for “a little anxiety” is? It’s excitement. Excitement sounds way more fun than anxiety! So when it comes to running, something you enjoy and want to do, think of your elevated heart rate, nervous energy, racing thoughts, etc. as excitement. I like to think of a good level of excitement to aim for is what you experience when you’re about to go on a roller coaster. Sure, there’s a little sense of fear but overall you’re looking forward to the thrill of the unknown.

performance anxietyYou Can Run Even While Anxious – It’s True!

The good news is that there’s not a written rule that says you can’t do something while being anxious. When it comes to running, it often helps to prep yourself mentally by normalizing that you will feel a little awkward during the first few minutes of a race or workout. Feel it, label it, and eventually it should pass.

Embrace It Because Whatever You Resist Will Persist

If you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, this concept can be hard to understand at first because if your anxiety got to a diagnosable level, it likely has paralyzed you or made it really difficult to function in everyday life. You want it to go away! But accepting that you experience anxiety — feeling it, labeling it, or reframing it — will go a long way in helping you cope. The more you fight it and get angry with anxiety the more anxious you are likely to feel.

There’s Help if You Need It.

Lastly, if you are still having funny feelings before, during, or after a run or race, it is a good idea to see your doctor to rule out any medical conditions. If no medical conditions are found and you still struggle with anxiety, it can be helpful to seek out a mental health specialist like a psychiatrist to discuss whether medication is an appropriate treatment or a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, or biofeedback to help you learn to cope better with the discomfort that anxiety excitement brings.

Do you struggle with anxiety on the run? What helps you manage the discomfort?

I write about mindfulness, mental health, and the professional sport of running with the occasional poking fun at the sport. When I am not running, I'm either helping people as a counselor or trying to make them laugh as an amateur open mic comedian.

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  1. I was diagnosed with generalized and social anxiety disorders not too long after I started running. I originally went to my doctor because I had developed persistent muscle twitches in various spots and was worried I had developed some sort of deficiency. I had also lost quite a bit of weight because I was using running as a way to escape. After bloodwork, mental health screenings and a lot of discussion, I started taking an SSRI.

    That allowed me to make some serious life changes and get myself back into a much better mental place, and to enjoy running for the right reasons (not that going for a run to blow off steam or work through things is bad, but I was literally running so I had a reason to not be in my house). I took the SSRI for about 5 years, but am no longer taking medication for anxiety. I’ve worked on other coping strategies for social situations, including just being aware of what situations will trigger it and accepting I will be uncomfortable. The other issues have also been resolved.

  2. The great irony of many mental disorders is that you have to accept it to improve it/make it go away. Always true for me with depression too. Great tips, Ging!