Writing and running in Austin, TX.
Whew. It’s been a rough week, and I apologize in advance if this post isn’t up to snuff. But I can’t just continue to sit around ignoring my blogging duties, even if I did happen to find the old Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for Super Nintendo… (I feel like I’m 11 again, and that feels just fine.)
Sometimes I really do wish I could go back to being a kid, where my biggest problem was trying to fit into the clothes in the Juniors section. But alas, I’m a big kid now, and I have to deal with big kid issues. And this week was as bad as they get.
On Tuesday afternoon I received a phone call informing me of the unexpected passing of a colleague and friend. I was absolutely stunned. As an expat, you prepare yourself for the fact that back home, life will go on without you. But you can never prepare for the idea that you won’t see someone again.
Perhaps I’m lucky to be far away. Back home, this news shook the office. Here in Aachen, they didn’t even get an email. And while Handsome J knew this person, he didn’t work closely with them for 3 years as I did. For the most part, this particular life event was for me to deal with on my own. And it’s times likes this I thank God for running.
Numerous studies have found that aerobic exercise can have a positive impact on mental health, and these days even WebMD lists exercise as an effective treatment* for mild to moderate depression or anxiety disorders. And I have to say, my personal experience supports this claim. Though I’ve been lucky never to experience any real depression, I’ve certainly always leaned a little to the anxious side. (Just sit next to me on a plane and you’ll see what I mean.) And I fully believe that running keeps me sane.
Here’s the magical thing about running — while it can be relaxing, addictive, even fun, it’s pretty much never easy. Even on an “easy run”, your body has to work, and that means your body (and your brain) get tired. Being an anxious person, I rely on that tiring out of my brain to break out of cycles of anxious thinking. The human brain can go a long time stuck in a loop of thinking about one stressful topic, but I find when I take my brain for a run, exhaustion inevitably breaks that loop.
Here’s my completely unscientific, unqualified opinion of how this works:
Your brain is in the stressful loop, for example, “I have to fly next week. What if the plane crashes? Don’t be silly, flying is perfectly safe. But sometimes planes crash…”
Now, this should be exhausting in and of itself, but your brain (or mine at least) is like an iPod stuck on repeat with an endless power supply. That is, if you just sit there and let it keep going.
BUT, if you take that iPod with you on a run (or on a bike, or to the gym, or wherever), it’s like you’ve pulled the charger out of the wall. It won’t stop playing instantaneously, of course, but gradually the juice will drain.
Basically, when you work yourself physically to the point where you start to feel tired, your brain helpfully associates the feeling with the thought. Not only am I tired of this damn run, but I’m tired of thinking about the stupid plane. It’s not going to crash. And even if it did, there isn’t a damn thing I could do about it!
And as I did my runs this week, that’s the conclusion I came to. I can grieve for my friend and their family. I can remember and celebrate a life that was cut short. But in the end, there isn’t a damn thing my worrying will do to make things different. I’m not a religious person, but I do believe that sometimes God or fate or what-have-you makes a decision, and we’re just left to pick up the pieces and move on.
Yes, I’m still sad. I’m sad for myself. I’m sad for this person’s family and friends. And I’m sad for them. When I get lost on a run and end up in the middle of beautiful green fields, when a kid on a bike runs up behind me yelling “beep beep!”, even when I have to jump out of the way of a crazed Dacshund on a 30-foot retractable leash, I’m sad that they will no longer get to experience these beautiful, fun, annoying, and crazy experiences that make up our lives. I’m sad that they won’t get to feel the wind in their face and the sun on their arms. And I’m sad that they won’t get to feel the stiff muscles, growling stomach, and all-around splendid tiredness that follow a really good workout.
Because even though we run to get away from the world, we also run to experience it. And to accept it for what it is.
Goodbye my friend. I hope it’s beautiful where you are.
* While I truly believe in the power of running to keep us healthy physically and mentally, I am NOT a medical professional of any kind. If you or someone you know is already on an effective treatment plan for anxiety or depression, please do not go cash it all in for a 40-mile-a-week training plan. Although you might add some running to your current treatment and see how it goes 🙂