Running as therapy

On a scale of grief-inducing moments, the sudden, totally unexpected death of an adored pet must rank pretty highly.

One minute you’re walking in the forest with your darling dog.

15 minutes later, he’s gone.

Like that.

With no warning.

This was my yesterday.

I’d be exaggerating if I said that in losing Yoko, I’ve also lost a running companion, because we only ran together once a week. Every Monday, without fail.

Well, actually, sometimes it was twice a week. Like last week. And the week before, and…

Heartbroken, and very emotional because of the wonderful kind messages I received yesterday and overnight, I didn’t feel “strong” enough to go to my regular running club meet.

I knew I’d start crying if anyone said anything.

I cried at their WhatsApp messages, so in person would’ve been that much more difficult.

But I knew I needed to run, so I went to my local park and did a slow, tearful 10km.

This park does not allow dogs inside (so obviously it’s full of strays), so Yoko and I have no shared running history there. Which helped.

I wanted to test the theory that running helps cope with grief.

I remember a very emotional run after my mother died, where I ended up sitting in a dusty Muslim shrine in Delhi, crying my eyes out.

I’ve run before to clear my head from stressful situations, like a week of back-to-back funerals late last year. But being brutally honest, these were funerals of relatives of my husband, so I wasn’t prostrate with grief.

I’ve run when I’m stuck with a work problem, or can’t think how to write an article with a looming deadline.

I’ve run many times to keep the crazy at bay.

So even though I felt raw this morning, I laced up and headed to the park, to see if running would once again help.

Initially it didn’t – which was the stage at which I posted my Instagram stories – instagram.

But by the end of my slow 10km I definitely felt better.

I sort of knew in advance that I’d definitely feel better after a run.

But why?

Why is running such good therapy?

I trawled the internet and one thing came across loud & clear, everyone is in agreement that exercise most definitely helps with stress or trauma or grief.

In a word – running is therapy.

(Yeah, that’s 3 words. Thanks)

Not one article pooh poohed the benefits of exercise in dealing with the traumatic moments life throws at us all:

“Any significant loss in your life can trigger a powerful grieving process. A death in your family, the loss of a pet, divorce, or even being laid off may send you whirling down a roller-coaster ride of emotions; numbness, anger, denial, despair, isolation, and depression… all are par for the course when you’re grieving.”

This article sets out very succinctly the benefits of exercise in combating grief in so many ways – mental, psychological and physical.

“Grief can lead to many physical symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue, insomnia, worsened aches and pains, loss of appetite, weakness, and more. While helping your mind, exercise can help to relieve many of these physical symptoms. If you’re having trouble sleeping, for example (common among grief-stricken individuals), exercise can help. Research shows that regular exercisers report sleeping better, including falling asleep faster and having a decreased need for sleeping pills, than they did prior to the start of their exercise program.

If you have pain, which is often made worse during psychological stress, exercise may help to relieve it, while at the same time banishing those potentially overwhelming feelings of fatigue. When you’re under extreme stress, your immune system also takes a hit, leaving you vulnerable to infectious disease, excessive inflammation and more. Here, too, exercise can be invaluable.

When you exercise, you increase your circulation and your blood flow throughout your body.”

What I found this morning was that for the first half of the run I kept thinking about Yoko, and then I’d tear up (not helped by seeing a Golden Retriever right outside my house, and for a second my heart skipped a beat…) but as I got into the rhythm of my run, I was thinking less and less, and just running.

So by the end of 10km, it almost seemed as though I’d moved a tiny distance down the road to recovery, less than 24 hours after we lost him. I’d managed not to think about him for a few kilometres…

Exercise may not extinguish grief but it can play a valuable role in helping people adapt to loss. Physical activity releases brain chemicals such as endorphins, which help to relieve discomfort and boost our mood.”

Even though the consensus appears to be that any exercise is beneficial, running seems to be one of the best ways of coping with grief and stress, and I refer you to this interesting article on the subject.

“You’re both really powerful and really vulnerable at the same time when you’re running, just physically,” says Sepideh Saremi, a licensed psychotherapist who believes so strongly in the power of the sport that she incorporates it into therapy sessions at Los Angeles-based Run Walk Talk. “There is an intensity when you’re running that makes other types of intensity more tolerable or less intense, in contrast to what’s happening in your body.”

Some of the psychological benefits of running are neurochemical. Molecules called endocannabanoids flow through your bloodstream at higher levels after a run, and then slip through your blood-brain barrier to fill the same slots as pot, stimulating similar feelings of calmness and peace (there’s a reason they call it runner’s high).

I liked the uplifting end to this article in Vice.com:

“For those who can run and choose to use it as a coping mechanism, Saremi sees a striking symbolism in forward momentum. “When you’re in grief like that, it’s like being in tar. It feels so bad,” she says. “I think running is the opposite of being stuck. It gives you hope that even though you can’t do anything to bring that person back, you’re still alive, and your life can go on.”

So there you go.

We all knew it already, but here you have proof scientific that running truly is a form of therapy.

It definitely helped me this morning.

I know it will take many weeks and many kilometres to ease the pain, but I’m going to heal myself, one run at a time.

6 Comments

  • Narpat

    Very well written Christine, as are all your posts.
    Using running as a therapy to tide over the grief at the unexpected and sudden passing away of your dear Yoko is a tested therapy.
    I wish you early relief from the pain. Run safe, run strong, come out of this in as long as it takes.
    The ASICS squad awaits your return to the ‘Tribe’
    Take care.

    • christine

      Thanks, dear friend. How these furry creatures take over our hearts. I’ll be crying for a while yet, but to have such group affection and strength is wonderful.

  • Deepak

    Nicely worded n well written. You hv put yr heart out in this article. And while going thru this one. An feel the pain and agony you are going thru Massi. As u HV writely said running indeed is a therepy and takes away yr sorrow and gives you lot of a happiness especially when u run in a group. I wish you early recovery from this loss of yr dear one.

    • christine

      Thank you so much. I’m a great believer in the power of running to deal with all sorts of problems. I’ll cry for a few more runs, that’s for sure, but I suppose gradually our hearts will heal.

  • Myriam

    Dear Christine, I’m sorry for your lost. But you were right in your article. It helps. And so does every sport. I took fighting classes for about 20 years. And if I had a rough day at work, my teacher told me to do boxing. To put your mind somewhere else, to yourself inside. And it worked. So, keep on running. Myriam

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