If life were a TV commercial, the fine print might say, “May cause anxiety and depression.” According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million Americans experience anxiety, while millions more suffer from major depressive disorder.
Trail running can be an outlet, but no amount of singletrack can get around the simple fact reflected in these statistics. Life, depression and anxiety go hand-in-hand-in-hand for many people—including trail runners.
Based on anecdotal evidence, the running community seems to deal with anxiety and depression as much if not more than the general population. Running breeds introspection and often involves social isolation, which could attract personality types prone to anxiety and depression. Regardless of the reason, for many trail runners, anxiety and depression play an important role in training, racing and simply living.
In my coaching group, I aim to get runners more comfortable talking about anxiety and depression without labels that may be attached to preconceived notions. To avoid the stigmas attached to the words “anxiety” and “depression,” we use the phrase “brain sparkles.” That silly term has helped some people understand that there is no judgment involved in talking about mental-health struggles.
So let’s talk about it.
Over the years, I have asked dozens of runners living with anxiety and depression what they think are the most important points for sparkly runners to remember. While there are countless great options, here are five that stand out.
1. Don’t be shy about asking for help.
A recent study indicated that 13 percent of Americans are on anti-depressants, and millions see a therapist routinely. While it’s OK to have your own opinions on the use of anti-depressants, it’s not OK to fault the opinions or actions of others on such an important topic.
Through coaching, I have learned that so many incredible human beings take a little pill before bed each night so they can be themselves the next day.
It doesn’t make you weak. In fact, your willingness to ask for help is a testament to your strength. The same goes for seeking therapy. What is trail running besides muddy group therapy, anyway?
Talk to people, engage with fellow runners, search for resources that can help (including professionals who are experts in anxiety and depression) and don’t be afraid to own your sparkles, because without your sparkles, you would be boring indeed.
2. Love yourself unconditionally.
While they may seem corny, self-affirmations—or positive statements made about a topic or task—can work wonders for people dealing with stress. A 2013 study in the open-access journal Public Libraries of Science (PLOS) found that self-affirmations could be an effective stress-management tool and potentially have positive effects on self image as well.
As always, it is easy to talk about self love, but often hard to implement. I ask my athletes to start simply, with a morning affirmation designed to put the day in context: “I love my brain sparkles, because they are a byproduct of my awesomeness.”
That often feels ridiculous at first, but over the course of many runs spent practicing self-love, it may start to make more sense.
When you are struggling, try to slow down your brain. Stop, close your eyes and smile (meditation is a great option as well). As football legend Terrell Owens said, “I am me, and I love me some me.”
Practice patient self love, even when it’s unnatural and even when you feel like you are lying.
3. Be mindful of your ambitions.
A 2014 study in the journal Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice found that conditions like bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, anxiety and depression were linked to inflated or deflated feelings of self worth. Ambition and failure are but two sides of the same coin: those who are ambitious will, at some point, fail to live up to their own expectations.
As a result, brain sparkles can be associated with the way a person relates to success.
Running is subject to the ambition trap just like jobs. The sport provides ample opportunity to judge yourself and compare yourself to others. A runner may fail—or get stressed about potential failure—and judge him or herself for that failure. That runner’s brain may stay on edge long after the perceived failure.
To combat this, before every race, I encourage my athletes to adopt the Zen technique of dropping ambition in the traditional sense altogether. It’s OK to want to win a race, but it’s usually not a great approach for long-term contentedness to determine self worth based on race outcomes.
On the flip side, eliminating self judgment from training and racing can help athletes that cope with fear of failure. What happens before, during and after the race is what matters, not the outcome of the race. In other words, there is nothing to fear about losing when there can be no such thing as losing no matter how the race goes.
Win a race (or finish last)? It doesn’t really matter. Get promoted and make a million bucks? Past a certain point, money only makes things more complicated.
Rather than putting running performance up on a pedestal, or participating in the rat race for its own sake, opt out as much as possible. Find reward in the act of running, rather than seeking reward only from the achievement of winning races or setting PRs.
4. High performance does not lead to contentedness.
Awards, accolades and achievements won’t change your internal reality. Just because you reach your running goals doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly be happier or less anxious.
It’s OK to train and race your butt off, but the process of training or racing should be an end in and of itself. Instead of striving for first place, strive for things like: “lights up a room,” “good person,” “works hard” and “not sure if a person or a puppy.”
5. Practice positivity.
Numerous studies discuss the role that positive thinking can play in reducing brain sparkles. This method, called positivity-activity interventions (PAIs), doesn’t work for everyone, but over the long haul it can play a role in helping some people deal with life’s stressful side effects.
Practice smiling when you don’t want to, being enthusiastic when you want to be boring and making bad jokes when you’re not sure you should. Most importantly, try to exude love to people that deserve it (and even those who don’t). You’ll eventually receive all those good spirits back ten-fold.
Intentional positivity is not easy. Your kids will be jerks sometimes. You will get trolled on Twitter. You will not have the perfect job. You will lose a race you should have won, or get injured when you deserve to be healthy. However, if you resolve to smile through the stuff that life throws at you, that stuff will start to smell like roses.
My goal here isn’t to tell you how to feel or act, but simply to let you know you are not alone and that whatever your perspective is, it is OK. Life is a lot like trail running—sometimes you are going up a brutal, sparkly climb that seems like it will never end, and sometimes you are cruising down a beautiful trail without a care in the world.
By honestly talking about how we feel—with friends, fellow runners and medical professionals—we can make the rocky trail feel a lot smoother, not just for ourselves but for the entire trail-running community.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.