On a cold March day in 2019 I decided running was my last resort. I was thirty-one that time and I was struggling with panic attacks, agoraphobia and anxiety I carried over from my twenties. The biggest obstacle with running was that I had irrationally dreaded from high pulse rates for years. I was obsessed with my pulse, counted it compulsively because when panic attacks hit me hard I felt my pulse went out of control, and I even got beta blockers for my high heart rate. Because of that I became even more obsessed with my heart. I felt on edge even when I walked at pace or climbed up on a hill, so running was completely out of the picture for me for years. So I just started out with yoga and meditation which helped me a lot.
For years I just played with the idea of running. I read articles about how cardio exercise could help with anxiety and read Bella Mackie’s Jog On and Matt Haig also talked about how running helped him with depression. Still, I was too afraid to go out for a run and accept my racing pulse.
In 2019 panic attacks came back to my life with force after I lost my beloved Grandma. So I wanted to face my biggest fear. For the first couple of months I ran just one or two minutes with my husband, then I went back to Hungary for the summer to visit my family and formed a new plan.
My mother told me stories about how running saved her life when she had a really rough period in her thirties. So she wanted to coach me, help me and grab the opportunity to start running again. My neighbor in England – who was like the fittest 65-year-old person I knew – recommended to me the Couch to 5K app, so my Mom and I hit the running course.
My favorite location to run is still in Hungary by the river Körös. The surface is flat, the route is scenic, close to nature and water. We needed to run in the evening because the summer heat in Hungary sometimes reaches 35 degrees during the day.
So we had a plan, a course, but it wasn’t as glorious as I imagined.
For the first couple of weeks I felt anxious before running, my hands trembled when we started out with our five-minute warm-up walk. I had this intrusive thought that if I ran anxious I would definitely die.
In the first week we just ran for a minute in seven reps, but I sweated, my pulse raced and I could not breath properly. Running – as expected – mimicked the symptoms of a panic attack. During running I fantasized about worst case scenarios, I even looked out for potential people who could resuscitate me if needed. I even felt angry with my mom who was so irresponsible she didn’t bring a phone with her (even if the riverbank is literally two minutes from the town center).
Week after week I survived. I always wanted to wiggle out of the longer runs but my mom didn’t let me; of course I blamed her for putting her only child in serious danger. (Yeah, sometimes in a fog of anxiety I am inclined to be a little bit dramatic.) We had hilarious conversations during our runs – which became funny just after a couple of years, back then they were dead serious.
Then I realized this whole thing needn’t come easy for me because I faced up against my biggest fear. I literally ran for my life. Running is like training for a big-ass panic attack. During running we produce adrenaline and stress hormones so the symptoms are similar. And of course it’s a serious mind-game as well. Running proved to me that I could stay in the hard situations even if I felt I was going to die. With panic attacks and anxiety my biggest problem was (and sometimes is) avoidance. I avoid situations instead of staying with the uncomfortable feelings, I flee when I feel the smallest inconvenience to avoid a panic attack at all costs.
At the end of the summer I managed to run twenty-five minutes without stopping. And then the next year I reached 3K in one go for the first time.
Still, my story is not all shiny and glorious. Sometimes I need to learn how to run all over again. I needed to learn how to run without my mother here in England, and then when lockdown came I was afraid of catching Covid. When I’m in an anxious period it is even harder to hit the pavement but I still try my best. I’d like to learn in the future how to run all by myself (without dragging my husband with me all the time). And one day I’d really like to reach that 5K because after two years it’s still my Everest.
Running is not a magic-fix for mental health issues. I still have my anxiety and sometimes panic attacks but I feel so much stronger compared to my old self. It gives me hope that I can face my fears and I can get up again and again. After many-many years of living with anxiety I don’t believe in instant solutions for mental health issues. Behind all the progress I’ve made lies a tremendous amount of hard work and I still face my fears every time I go out for a run.
But I learned a lot about myself because of running. And I think the best thing you can do for your mental health is going out to run or doing other types of exercise. I can say running has saved my life and is saving it all the time by bringing forth my strengths and teaching me how to cope with my weaknesses. Yes, it’s hard, sweaty and sometimes – for me all the time – scary, but it’s definitely worth it. After a good run I feel calm and accomplished. As Glennon Doyle would say, I’ve proved myself that I can do hard things.
You can follow Gabriella on Instagram @gabriellaszaszko
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