“A fog running through Birmingham,” Early Morning Run, December 29, 2020
A New Year—time for a fresh start. As you set your “new” goals—running, or increasing your level of physical activity, is likely to be somewhere on your list.
Everyone knows running is good for you.
Everyone knows you need exercise.
And everyone knows the benefits, whether it’s—
Cardiovascular health. Strengthening bones. Or losing weight.
The list is obvious, and even trite, to say out loud. We know basic assertions about psychology and health that we have heard since we grew up, and most of us, most of the time, think we know the full story about the things we’ve known about for years.
But what if we didn’t?
What if—when it came to running—there was something that most people didn’t really understand? Something that, if you did understand it, could change your life?
The truth is, with running, there is something that most people just don’t know about. It’s something people don’t talk about, something people don’t fully acknowledge, and it’s something that I had wished people would talk about more often.
And it starts with our emotions.
Clue #1: Most of Us Are Inept at Processing Emotions
As Dr. Susan David points out in her book, Emotional Agility, we often resist listening to our emotions—whether they be joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, contempt, or disgust.
And sometimes, we can’t even hear our emotions. We’re moving so fast throughout the day, living in “auto-pilot” mode, that we never actually slow down to check-in with how we’re feeling.
Often, in a session, I will ask a client how they’re feeling, and it’s actually not uncommon to hear, “I don’t know.” Note: this is particularly true for high achievers, who often view emotions as obstacles on their path that need to be avoided, as opposed what they really are—navigation guides.
The fact of the matter is—they haven’t even stopped long enough to notice. Even in a quiet place, focusing on what they are feeling is difficult, because they’re out of practice (like so many of us) or perhaps, they never learned how to become emotionally agile.
A headache, a stomachache, an anxiety attack…these are often the first alarm bells that we have ignored our emotions. Emotions, really, are just neurochemical signals that help us navigate life’s currents.
But the system is only helpful when we know how to turn it on, and when we know how to actually use it.
Clue #2: We Don’t Make “Space” for Our Emotions
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, points out that we have two types of thoughts.
Immediate, automatic, unconscious Type 1 thoughts, and slower, deliberate Type 2 thoughts.
Most of us live in “Type 1” thinking, 98 percent of the time. Type 1 helps us with routine tasks: brushing our teeth, driving to work, buckling the seatbelt.
But when we think in Type 2—slower, more conscious, more aware—we do something that we’re not used to. We snap out of autopilot. We get back to the moment.
And we have space—space to actually look at our thoughts. Space to feel our feelings. And space to look at the insides of our mind.
And when we don’t do that? All of your unfelt emotions pile up to a feeling of burnout and exhaustion.
Clue #3: Emotions Run in Cycles
In Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, authors (and sisters) Emily and Amelia Nagoski, provide a fascinating perspective of emotions.
Imagine this visual: emotions move from the top (your brain) all the way down to the tip of your toes, and even under your skin.
In their book, they describe emotions as having a beginning, a middle and an end—like a cycle.
And for our emotions to fully “cycle their way” through us, they have to work from beginning to end. It’s not enough just to have feelings. We have to work through our feelings. Or, as they say, work through them like “tunnels” where you have to “go all the way through them to get to the light at the end.”
The problem is, we tend to do the opposite. We don’t let our feelings vent themselves. We don’t let our emotions process. And in fact—
We Often Don’t Let Our Emotions “Run Through” Completely
Often, we treat emotions like a half-run drying cycle. If we need a shirt quickly, we might take it out mid-cycle. The shirt is damp, it takes a while for it to dry, and yet, even then, it’s not quite right.
When we leave emotions in the middle—”half-run,” sitting, not quite right, we stay stuck. Stress sits. It manifests in our bodies and often “shows up” in so many ways, it’s hard to count, like:
“Sideways Emotions,” such as anger and rage—where you just “lose it”
Physical aches and pains such as stomachaches and headaches
Long-standing emotional issues
Furthermore, when emotions and stress are “stuck,” it builds and builds over time to a more physical and emotional exhaustion, and eventually—complete burnout.
The problem is, we have this belief that if the stressor is gone, the stress is gone.
Even if the immediate situation (a car accident, an argument, or pain) is gone, the actual emotional stress can stay for hours, days, weeks, months, and sometimes, even years.
We forget (and maybe we never even knew) that emotions “happen everywhere and affect everything.” We are emotional beings. And to get “unstuck,”—to really feel your feelings—we have to do something that lets your body know one thing: that you are safe.
And running is one way to do precisely that.
Completing the Cycle with Running
More now than ever, we need headspace. Over the last 10 months, most of us have been searching for clarity and direction and a sense of inner calm that seems, honestly, to elude us.
I’ve been a runner for decades. But running, right now, at this point of my life, has literally gotten me through this pandemic.
At times, you might’ve experienced what I have—cluttered thoughts that feel like a “as far as you can see” traffic jam (with no alternate routes available, frankly).
When we’re under chronic stress, our bodies, our emotions, and our natural fight-or-flight response become frozen inside of us, leaving you unable to assess or respond to stress, uncertainty, or just your everyday life.
In this state, our emotions can stay “stuck.”
Many days, you might’ve felt like you were sitting in the “middle” of emotions, but unsure of how to move in any direction. Finding “room” to think has been a challenge, and at times, from just a pure scheduling perspective, finding that time can be like finding a needle in a haystack.
So, is there a clever way to work out of this?
Turns out, there is. Just exercise—except, do it for different reasons than you might think.
From my experience as a psychologist, and as a human being, physical activity is the most efficient strategy for completing the stress response cycle. It’s something that allows us to fully process our emotions. Because when we run, the message is transmitted quickly to our brains: You have survived the threat—your body is safe again.
I’m a runner. And yet, I still feel it—sometimes, the very last thing I want to do after waking up is layering up, tying my shoes, and hitting the road.
But once I get out of the house, and once I get going, something happens. My emotions are being fully processed.
I’m connecting with nature. I’m getting space to think. Sometimes, I pray. Sometimes, I listen to a book. And sometimes, I come up with blog ideas. But, I philosophize, regain headspace, breathe, work out issues.
And when I’m running, my thoughts start to run so clear that I could almost hear a pin drop. In the hour that I’m outside, moving, the world seems completely manageable. Clarity comes. My thoughts have space, and my Type 2 thoughts are activated.
Running provides a respite. A place to go—somewhere where I can be me, listen to my thoughts, and do it without any of the external noise.
And as we move into the next wave of pandemic life, we’re cautiously optimistic. We’re excited about a vaccine.
But now more than ever, we need to take care of ourselves. In a recent New York Times article, Farhad Manjoo reports, “Nine long, deadly months into the pandemic, Americans report severe psychic distress. It’s dark, we’re stuck inside, and we’re isolated from friends and family. Politics is fevered, the economy continues to struggle, and the coronavirus rages on. Many of us may be at a breaking point.”
I believe to get this sense of emotional balance, we can start small. Whether it’s just “moving” outside for 15 to 20 minutes, or going on a full-out run, it doesn’t matter. Just start where you are, and—
Notice your body.
Alter your time and intensity based on your current stress level.
Search for signs of renewal as you move from the beginning to the end of your emotions—being able to think clearly, feeling more optimistic, feeling more motivated, feeling tension diminish.
Make sure you give room for emotions to be truly “felt” while on your run—from beginning to end.
So, my advice?
Don’t just run because “it’s good for you.” Run because it’s better for the rest of your life, too.