Running with anxiety: this is what you need to know.

It happens to the best of us.

One time I went to open a bottle of red at a party and the cork got stuck. So, I thought I’d just jab a knife in there and…yeah. I don’t know what I expected to achieve. I just wanted wine. Anyway, as soon as the knife went through the cork, the pressure inside the bottle caused the contents contained within to spray up through the freshly cut holes in the cork. Red wine went everywhere. All over my face. All over the faces of the people around me. But most embarrassingly, it splattered all over the pristine white ceiling of my friend’s parents’ kitchen. And that’s where it stayed until they hired someone to paint over the stains.

That happened TWELVE years ago. But it’s all stored away upstairs for my brain to feed back to me blow-by-blow when I least expect it. Because the brain is EXCELLENT at holding onto things. (Except for when you really need to remember the name of that movie. Or pass an exam. Or find your keys.)

Running can help with depression.

In each of our brains is a bunch of neurons (brain cells) that come together to form the default mode network. The default mode network activates when you’re not directly involved in a task but rather, when you’re daydreaming and letting your mind wander. This is the part of your brain that helps you remember all those embarrassing stories you'd rather just forget. It's home to your inner self-talk and the annoying voice that obsesses over your past. Its activity has been linked with clinical depression.

Here’s how you shut it up: go for a run. In one study, scientists found that runners’ brains have decreased activity in the default mode network. They also saw increased activity in the part of the brain involved in memory, planning, focus, and attention. Basically, if you’re trying to overcome stress and depression and sharpen your brain function in one smooth hit: chuck on your sneakers and go for a jog. 

Someone sciency got their tech on and made this pretty image of the default mode network for us. Well, for Wikipedia. They made it for Wikipedia. Image via:

Someone sciency got their tech on and made this pretty image of the default mode network for us. Well, for Wikipedia. They made it for Wikipedia. Image via:

It can help with anxiety too.

Surveys have shown that 60-70% of people experience depression and anxiety together. Anxiety usually comes first – and then, the people who are more vulnerable to mental illness, will go on to become depressed too. For example, someone with anxiety will look towards the future and become fearful of the things that may happen. A person with depression will experience all that fear plus feelings of not being able to cope with what’s coming.

So even though people refer to them as separate illnesses, many medical professionals consider anxiety and depression to be two sides of the same coin. The neurobiology appears to overlap and the genetics also seems to be the same. It’s probably not that surprising then, that running helps with anxiety, too. It warms you up, which can have a very calming effect on your body. And it teaches your body to adapt to and recover from physical stress, which means you’re better equipped to deal with life stressors.

But anxiety makes running difficult. 

Rick Mirabella, owner and founder of Runnez Virtual, our favourite running app, has trained thousands of people – and many of them through their darkest days. He’s the first person to point out that running helps with anxiety but explains that the increased level of cortisol – your body’s main stress hormone – makes it hard to run.

Cortisol: it makes you feel like s**t, but under the microscope it certainly doesn't look like it. Image found here:

Cortisol: it makes you feel like s**t, but under the microscope it certainly doesn't look like it. Image found here:

“When we find ourselves in a stressful situation, cortisol goes up – and helps us deal with the challenges we face – but usually it comes back down to a ‘normal’ level when the stressor goes away. Someone who has anxiety has constantly elevated levels of cortisol.” he says.

How does this look in the real world? Well, even if you do manage to get to the gym or the running track – a feat in itself – you’re far from an ideal state.

“Your body thinks it’s already ‘gone to battle’, so to speak. Even if you haven’t been running, or doing any physical activity at all, your stress hormones have been busy – often with no break for days or months on end. This means you’ll be lethargic, unmotivated, and generally sluggish – all before the session starts.” says Mirabella.

If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, then Mirabella’s comments probably resonate with you. The elevated cortisol can make things very uncomfortable. Racing thoughts. Shallow breathing. Painfully tight chest. Pounding heart. The excessive fear and obsessive thinking…it’s mentally and physically exhausting from sun up to sun down. PLUS anxiety often goes hand-in-hand with poor sleep – which makes matters worse.

“Sleep is THE key to recovery and improved performance. Not only will people with anxiety find it difficult to run – they’ll struggle to get better at it too. This can impact on their desire and motivation to actually keep running.” says Mirabella.

Has a truer cartoon ever been drawn? The Awkward Yeti nails it yet again. Image via:

Has a truer cartoon ever been drawn? The Awkward Yeti nails it yet again. Image via:

Exercise is important, but self-care is crucial: Rick’s top tips.

Mirabella strongly believes that everyone should be running, or doing some form of physical activity, to manage and maintain their mental health. Exercise simply HAS to be in your toolkit – mental illness or not. But when you suffer from anxiety, you need to reshuffle your priorities slightly. While you should continue to move as much as you can, self-development has to feature at the top of your to-do list. He breaks this down for us into three main focus areas, which we’ve outlined below.

Tip 1: Stay present.

“Try not to think of the future or dwell on the past – but to take each workout and each day as it comes without building things up in your mind to be bigger or more complicated than they actually are.” says Mirabella.

He points out that negative thoughts and anxious moments will always come and go – even after you’ve reached a point where you feel you’ve got a handle on your anxiety.

“Aim at paying them no attention: they’re just thoughts.” he says.

One way to practice doing this? Meditation, according to Mirabella. He cannot speak highly enough of it and stresses that it can be a 45-minute guided session or simply 5 minutes in your room in the morning. It all counts.

By Cathy Thorne 🙌:

By Cathy Thorne 🙌:

Tip 2: Be thankful for the life you lead.

“List three things you’re thankful for every day. It really does have a beautiful, positive effect on your mood. And I’ve found it really helps your outlook if you do it right before a training session or race.”

Nail. On. The. Head. We’re always banging on about practising gratitude at HeadUp – and for good reason! It’s easy to do, costs nothing, and takes minutes. Our data scientists have even shown that when you feel in love, you’re six times more likely to feel gratitude. So think of all the people you love in your life (doesn’t have to be romantic love!) and a grateful state of mind will soon follow.  

Tip 3: Ask for help.

According to Mirabella, even elite runners can’t manage mental illness on their own. All the running certainly helps – but it’s the process of self-development that gives them the capacity to run the way they do in the first place. They, just like anyone else suffering from anxiety or depression, need the support of medical professionals, psychologists, friends, and family.

The ridiculous number of articles about running and anxiety on the Internet might give you the idea that pounding the pavement day in and day out is the way to go – but it doesn’t work like that. You’ll probably get your step count in – but without giving your brain the care it needs your anxiety won’t improve. And you won't get fitter either. Anxiety is simply not productive or conducive to running performance – or quality of life.

“If you had a knee injury you’d go and see a physio. You’d seek professional help. The same should go for the most important part of the human body: the mind. Please don't suffer in silence. Open up to someone. Start talking. There are always people around you who can help.” says Mirabella.

Take care of your brain and it will take care of you. Image via:

Take care of your brain and it will take care of you. Image via:

Take-home message?

Run to your heart’s desire. Lift heavy weights. Jump up and down on your bed. Do a Prancercise class. Move your body in a way that makes you feel good, but remember that your body and mind like to talk to you. Tight muscles, fatigue, and obsessive thinking aren’t just symptoms you ‘deal with’ until they ‘go away’: that’s your body trying to tell you something. And we think it's worth missing a scheduled run or two if it gives you the time to listen. 

Soon you won’t have to decode what your body is trying to say. You’ll know. With a touch of your screen the HeadUp app will show you where you’re at and what you can do to make positive changes to your overall health and wellbeing. You won't have to go it alone – we’ll guide you every step of the way.

Speaking of steps, your first one is to sign up for early access right here. Once you’ve done that, come and say hi! We hang out on FacebookInstagram and Twitter every single day. 

*Please note: header image was found here: