Mental Health + The Power of Running
May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, and this year I wanted to share some personal accounts from other Type One Runners about the connection between mental health, diabetes and running.
As likely all of us affected by type 1 diabetes are anecdotally aware, and as has been explored by the Beyond Type 1 Mental Health series, there is a link between diabetes and depression. In addition to the constant task of self-administering a life-threatening medication (insulin) in order to try to maintain a stable and healthy blood sugar level, we also live with the fundamental awareness that our own bodies are what have caused this misery, as well as the constant need to juggle a balance between quality of life, desirable lab results, and physical, social and emotional health—factors which don’t always neatly align.
While I don’t have a family history of type 1 diabetes (T1D) (every doctor seems to ask this question), I do have a family history of anxiety, depression and suicide (no doctor seems to ask this one). As we are self-managing a chronic disease through numerous daily choices, our mental health is inextricably tied to our physical health. Not only can type 1 diabetes exacerbate anxiety and depression, but the reverse is also true. It is all too easy to enter a downward spiral.
For me, after my diagnosis with T1D, I have been fortunate that running has become an activity which links my mind and my body and at the same time heals and enriches both. By running, I am taking an affirmative action to improve my health, beyond preventing or delaying deteriorating health by fighting my body’s insulin deficiency. And instead of focusing on the failure in my body, running also allows me to experience its positivity, strength and capacity for improvement. It allows me to set my own goals and feel the pride and satisfaction of meeting and exceeding them.
Running takes me to new places and lets me connect with the outside and see the world in a different way. Especially when I am running long distances or on trails, running clears my mind and can feel almost spiritual when I really get into a flow. And while figuring out blood sugar management during running can be a challenge, and even downright frustrating at times, it pays back dividends when I see how much easier it makes blood glucose (BG) management throughout the day.
And while I love to run alone, Type One Run has also brought a social aspect to running and T1D which I have found very meaningful. Through TOR, I have found many new friends around the world, both online and in real life. It’s amazing to travel to a new city and run with another person with T1D who may be complete stranger, but who shares the challenge of type 1 diabetes and the joy of running.
I started running because it was good for my body, but I keep running because it’s good for my mind. Exercise is a wonderful, accessible, cheap and scientifically-proven method of reducing stress. It’s even been shown to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety! Through the years, the physical and mental act of running has helped me be able to better handle all sorts of personal, professional and other stressors that have come my way. Physically, I can stand it if I go a few days or even a week without running. But if I skip more than one day, my temper gets shorter, I get more physically anxious and my threshold for frustration tolerance plummets! Running keeps me on track, pun not intended.
I realized recently that I often experience running the same way that other people describe the process of meditation. I don’t run with music or podcasts, and find that my thoughts just wander as I watch them go by. And when the run gets tough, it’s the mental exercise of choosing to acknowledge the pain but focus on other things instead that keeps me going. Running makes us stronger in so many ways, and teaches us important lessons that can be applied across all areas of life. I wouldn’t be who I am without it!
At first I thought of type 1 as a burden. With that diagnosis came a wave of stress and anxiety, which at times seemed to shadow even diabetes itself. Soon these three became a combo that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. High blood sugar leads to stress, low blood sugar to anxiety, over-correcting to another high blood sugar, then more stress. Eventually I realized that T1D isn’t a burden at all, because even a burden can be lifted. Sadly though, there’s no one that can lift T1D off of you. It’s your weight to bear. Day in and day out you’ll carry it around, pretending it’s lighter than it truly is. You can’t cure your T1D, but you can escape it, if only for an hour.
As you run, life tends to simplify itself. Things you can’t change in the moment tend to melt away, and you’re boiled down to a more pure version of yourself. As the blood begins to flow so do you, and the weight of stress, anxiety and depression tends to fade. If only for the next three miles I’m no longer “Jon the Diabetic” but instead “Jon the Trail Blazing Runner.” I promise you that the endorphins of exercise are real and can free us from the weight of our reality, and can drastically change the way you cope with the stress and anxiety of T1D.
I was never into running in school/college, but I had to do something to manage my diabetes. I was in medical school when I was reading new things and experimenting on myself just to master my diabetes! That’s when running came into my life. For a long time, I thought I could never run because during school, I had a dreadful memory of losing consciousness once when I was asked to run. That thought stuck with me and I actually thought running was never meant for me. So I never tried for years and never got the courage to face that fear!
But with insulin shots, running came as a rescue. I began stepping out for short distances and gradually building up to miles and now I can’t believe I actually ran a full marathon last year! Running keeps me sane and mentally tough. I’m a far happier person since I started running. The time when I decided to overcome that fear of running was tough but the moment I was in the zone of my run everything seemed just so right! It gave me so much clarity and every run taught me new ways to balance my own body. I started planning my runs, my hydration and seeing how far I’ve come is inspiring because this wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing people I met on this running journey.
Running helped me gain mental strength, balance my blood sugars and I’ve never felt better—physically, mentally and emotionally. It just gave me my “me time” in the hustle and bustle of daily life! There are times when nothing seems right and I grab my shoes and decide to go run because I know after that run I’ll be more learned and more at peace with myself. Every run irrespective of how short/long it is teaches something and it’s a process—I’m still learning every day!
I used to joke that I ran so much because I was running away from real life. I’m not sure if people could discern, but it was always only a half joke, because for awhile, I really was struggling with real life. And running was my only temporary escape, physically and mentally. But as I continued to run half-marathons, I realized that if I could push myself to take steps forward toward each finish line, I could also pull myself out of the hole I felt I was falling into.
Every time I crossed the finish line was a reminder to myself that I had the strength and endurance to overcome the struggles of real life. And if my blood sugars held up throughout, it made the run that much sweeter.
For another Type One Runner’s perspective on mental health, read Running For My Life.