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Changing My Running Pace Helped Me Manage My Anxiety and Depression | Running

Before I took up running, any moment of anxiety, panic, or depression seemed like something I needed to sprint through. I’ve lived with mental health disorders for 18 years, and I always felt that I needed to get through the difficult moments as quickly as possible. If I didn’t, I thought I’d be labeled “weak” or “crazy.”

When I started running a little over two years ago, I approached it the same way: I’d start out as fast as I could, and I’d quickly exhaust myself and give up for the day. Other runners would pass me on the trail, and I’d feel so disappointed as I walked, panting. The feeling was all too similar to when I saw people acting carefree while I dealt with a panic attack—a feeling of failure.

One day, I decided to try something different.

Instead of attempting to sprint through my runs, I decided to go as slowly as I needed. At first, I felt embarrassed and worried about what other people might think when they saw me running so slowly. But I reassured myself that I wasn’t running to impress them—I was running for me. And, to my surprise, I noticed a difference immediately. That day, I ran my first mile and experienced an adrenaline rush that left me eager for more. I began training for my first 5K two days later.

A few weeks into training, it was time for my first run without any walking breaks. A 20-minute run without any rest felt impossible. As I laced up my sneakers, I started to worry and wonder if this whole “5K thing” still made sense for me to pursue.

But just as I was about to skip out, I reminded myself that I didn’t need to be “perfect” and gave myself permission to make up my own rules. I headed out the door, started running, and soon realized that the run felt a lot less daunting if I focused on small goals—reach that stop sign, make it to that road, pass those people walking—instead of stressing about the end goal.

I finished my 20-minute run feeling indestructible.

I was awestruck by how this new approach empowered me to do something I’d previously considered impossible. When I made it back home, I started thinking: What if I applied the same slow but determined approach to my rough mental health moments?

Instead of trying to sprint through my anxiety, panic, or depression, I realized I could slow things way TF down, take as long as I needed to navigate through the difficult times, and break huge goals into smaller, more attainable chunks. My eyes welled with tears. I knew right there, after that exhilarating 20-minute run, that other people’s expectations and my fear of further stigmatization would no longer be the driving forces behind my recovery.

Because, honestly, that’s not what recovery is. If someone’s child came to them in pain and their response was to yell at them to “hurry up and get over it,” would that make sense? Heck no—that kid needs compassion and empathy, and the yelling would only cause their negative emotions to flare up. Tending to one’s mental health requires the same supportive, intentional care. It requires setting manageable goals instead of expecting to hit the finish line right away. It’s about less yelling and ridiculing. More compassion and empathy. Less sprinting and more of the “Tortoise and the Hare” approach: Slow and steady wins the race.

Ella, crossing the finish line of her first 5K race. Courtesy of the author

I finished my first 5K race on June 13, 2015.

The start time of the race was unclear, so a bunch of racers, myself included, arrived 15 minutes after the race had started—the start line wasn’t anywhere to be seen, as volunteers had already removed it. Disappointment washed over all of us, and the other late arrivals opted to go home or walk. But running taught me to adjust my expectations to overcome challenges. I opened the run tracker app on my phone, started running, and finished completely exhausted but so damn proud.

Almost two years later, I’m feeling less anxious, panicky, and depressed than I have since my disorders set in. Do I still have bad days? Absolutely. But now they’re a lot less powerful because I know that I have what it takes to handle them.

Ella poses with her brother after finishing her first 5K race. Courtesy of the author

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