How Trail Running Helped Me Cope with Anxiety

Ever since I can remember, i’ve struggled with my confidence. I can even remember back in pre-school, feeling overwhelmed and worried about how good my drawings were compared to the other kids…worrying I wasn’t good enough, and that I didn’t want to show anyone the picture I made because it wouldn’t live up to how good theirs was.

Thinking back on that, it seems crazy, and I obviously didn’t know it at the time, but that was my anxiety talking…and it’s really good at convincing you of things about yourself….

I’ve Come a long way in the past 8 years or so, but it’s been a really long, struggle to get here. I’ve gotten through an eating disorder that I learned was more of a coping mechanism to deal with my anxiety and the negative cycle of thoughts/beliefs about yourself that it brings. I’ve got a good handle on things now, but it is certainly not easy. To my huge disappointment i’ve had to learn it’s never going to go away, but that’ i’m just going to get better at dealing with it….I’ve had to start to think of it as a chronic condition.

Some of you may know exactly what i’m talking about when I say I have anxiety, but some of you may have no idea. For those of you who don’t experience it, i’ll try my best to describe it to you…

My anxiety is loud, it’s pushy, and it’s powerful.
My anxiety is fast…so fast it almost feels violent.
And my Anxiety has informed me of these FACTS about myself:

It has told me:
I’m not good enough.
Everyone reading this will judge me.
There’s no way I can or should do this.
I’m not a “real runner”, and I don’t belong here.

OH and I also happen to be fat, terrible at my job, and just generally a shitty person….and that’s just what it’s saying today…

Now, I’m kind of making light of it there, but, these are all statements i’ve fully believed were “FACT” more than once.

Because that’s what anxiety does…it takes thoughts/beliefs, and turns them into HARD FACTS.
They become absolute truths and no matter how many people tell you differently, you will not believe it. So it’s exhausting, and it’s a constant battle with your mind.

SO. How do I deal with that? Luckily, I found Long Distance Running.

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I tell people now that trail running is my therapy, and It’s also the perfect metaphor for my mental health journey.

When I run, just like with my anxiety, I’m in a constant battle with my mind. I’m often in pain, feeling lonely, and exhausted out on the trail, and my mind tells me there’s no way I can get through it.

I’ve broken down into tears numerous times, sitting alone in the middle of a trail, completely broken…but I know no one is coming out there to pick me up. There’s no ‘easy way out’ of that place. I have to literally pick myself up, put one foot in front of the other, and realize that no matter how slow it may be, i’m at least still moving forward. I know now, I can always take a few more steps…

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Now on the other hand, those hours spent out on the trails, in my head, gives me time to process my thoughts. It forces me to BREATHE. Something I hated being told to do to battle anxiety because deep breathing isn’t exactly your number one priority when you feel like you’re having a heart attack…. but it turns out it really does help.
It reconnects me to nature- and helps me realize the world is a pretty unreal place, and can snap me out of my negative thoughts. It helps me see my body as strong for the first time in my life. I don’t have to worry about what size of jeans I am, or if i have love handles when I know my legs are powerful enough to take me to the top of a mountain. It totally re-framed how I look at my body and appreciate what it is capable of.
And it’s also introduced me to an incredible community of people-strong, stubborn, inspirational people who are also pushing through things, whether it’s the physical, or mental challenge that running brings.

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This summer I completed my first ultra-the Squamish 50km. There were all sorts of different body types, ages, and fitness levels out on those trails…time didn’t matter, and there were no egos. It was about a supportive community of people, getting outside, testing their limits and encouraging each other. Even the people doing the 50/50 (50miles on Saturday, 50km on Sunday), were stopping to encourage those of us doing the 50km, passing on advice and words of encouragement. It was an incredible experience, and I spent a lot of time reflecting on how much it has helped me. It gave me confidence I’ve never had before. It gave me an appreciation for my body and what it’s capable of. I walked away from it (well, more like hobbled away, because my body was SO sore in the best possible way) feeling way more at peace with what I got through to get me there…I finally felt able to talk openly about what I’ve struggled with over the years.

So this fall, when I was asked to be part of a local art show to help promote Mental Illness Awareness Week, I immediately said yes. My partner Gary and I own a media company, and a lot of our work revolves around portraiture and trying to capture emotion in people’s every day lives, so when I was asked to do something for this show, my mind immediately went to how I could try to capture the emotion in, and the coping mechanisms of, dealing with my anxiety…

I then also knew right away that was going to mean picking a mountain, and running up it at an unreasonably early time of day, which is exactly what we did. This series was shot on my way up to the top of Mt. McIntyre here in the Yukon. It happened to be the very first day that snow hit us this fall (that was unplanned, but I think worked out well for the purpose of the shoot)…

Gary and I did this shoot as a team which only made sense…He was the first person I finally admitted everything to when I was at my lowest, and he’s been beside me to support me every single day since, from going to my counselling appointments with me, to going on stupidly long mountain bike rides in the mountains with me while I run, which isn’t as fun for him as it is for me…again, having a support system is so important, and has made all the difference.
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I wanted to share this photo series with the RLAG community just incase there’s anyone else out there dealing with this stuff. Knowing you’re not alone in your thoughts can be pretty powerful, and knowing you have a community that has got your back can make all the difference, which is what I think RLAG is all about.

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