Reshaping Your Mind & Body: Running To/From Stress
Under normal circumstances, the winter months are a stressful time for many people. In more northern climates, where the frequency of sunshine drops considerably, seasonal affective disorder is widely documented. The lack of naturally-occurring vitamin D has been linked to depression and numerous treatments have been crafted to counteract the lack of the sun’s rays. In addition, common knowledge tells us that the holiday season is a particularly stressful time for many people. The combination of seeing family members you aren’t accustomed to seeing, pressure to find the perfect gift, dietary concerns, memories of loved ones, travel, taking time off of work (especially when you are busy), and a host of other personal circumstances can add a great deal of stress to an already gloomy environment. Add to this the collective sorrow our nation is struggling with over the recent tragedy in CT, and you can begin to see how stress levels can sneak up on you without even realizing it.
To some extent, many of us simply accept this added stress as a part of life. Many of us have a variety of ways to cope, some of which are certainly healthier than others. During this time of year, I am, however, even more reminded of the healing power of running. Exercise in general has been regarded by most as an effective stress reliever, even if we can’t say why. I know I was certainly in that camp when I started running, and it seemed to work quite well for me, so I became a believer. That doesn’t mean I understood what was happening in my brain.
The positive effects of running seem to fall into two categories: physiological and psychological. Physiologically, exercise has been shown to be advantageous for a host of reasons. It has been shown to lower blood pressure, slow bone and muscle loss, improve cardiovascular function, and help prevent osteoporosis. Arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes can all be combated by consistent running. Although we may not be able to see this results, we certainly feel them in terms of our overall health and well-being. The psychological effects seem to be a bit more tricky to pinpoint, but are none-the-less significant.
Those same physical ailments that we strive to avoid have also been linked to chronic stress. Whether you are dealing with acute stress brought on by a significant life event, or long-term stress caused by a hectic life, your mind and body are suffering. Running is a natural way of counteracting some of those negative effects. The release of endorphins (feel-good hormones) during running can have a lot to do with feeling better after a run and combating some of that stress. What’s more interesting though, is that researchers have recently discovered that the cells that are created in our bodies (especially the brain) during exercise are actually more resistent to the negative effects of stress. So, not only is the chemistry of our brains being altered after each mile we run, but we are rebuilding our mind and body to hold up to future stress more effectively.
As anyone who has ever sought out help from a counseling professional (or even the best friend who is a good listener) knows, fighting stress and depression is not easy. We live in a fast-paced society where instant gratification and quick fixes are the norm, but that usually isn’t a realistic expectation when it comes to these bigger concerns. As someone who thrives on getting things done (and crossing them off a list), running can be that one concrete thing you do for yourself when you are feeling stressed or feeling down. When you get back from a hard run, drenched, exhausted, and ready to hop in a warm shower, you know you’ve accomplished something good for your body. That is one time where your brain isn’t playing any tricks on you!