On my first night as a freshman in college, just one out of 34,000 students I didn’t know, I laced up my unworn sneakers, found my way to the massive track in the middle of campus, and started running. I’d never run before.
I’m not particularly athletic.
I’m still not sure why I decided to go for a run, having never done it before. But I needed an excuse to escape the tiny new dorm I was sharing with a stranger, and that night, running seemed like a better idea than sitting alone at the campus dining hall. And it was, shin splints and all.
Throughout college, when things felt overwhelming, I’d go for a run. When I needed a study break. When I needed an escape from the dorm. When I was sad or tired or stressed. I never really paid attention to pace or distance. It was more about turning up music and tuning out everything around me.
Junior year, it became hard for me to do anything—raise my hand in class, walk across campus, study at the library—without falling into a full-on panic. It’s confusing to be 21 and too nervous to walk into a lecture hall, let alone a frat party. I found a psychologist, who suggested therapy and medication; both helped, but it was upping my mileage that actually made me feel better.
Running can't solve everything, and running too much can make everything even worse (which is another lesson I learned the hard way when I tried to train for a half marathon without doing my research).
But even the experts agree that exercise—and running, specifically—is as beneficial for your mental well-being as your body. Aerobic exercise not only relieves depressive symptoms, but also, when combined with meditation, it can actually change your entire brain for the better.
Therapy and medication helped, but it was upping my mileage that actually made me feel better.
I don’t know how much my brain has actually changed, but I don’t need science to tell me these benefits exist—because I’ve experienced them firsthand.
When I first moved to New York, it was like that first day of college all over again. This time, it was me and 8.4 million strangers in a neighborhood I hadn’t spent a single day in.
Every night after work—before I made new friends and when my social life was limited to talking to my college pals on the phone—I’d run, getting less and less lost every night. When I did make friends (and when I finally stopped getting so lost), I’d run in the morning.
Sometimes the anxiety from college would come back (it always does, doesn’t it?). When it was really bad, it’d feel pretty impossible to drag myself outside to go for a run in the daylight—because nothing about anxiety is rational. So I’d run late at night.
Running helped me work through brutal anxiety, bad relationships, terrible bosses, and also lots of really great things, too, like quitting my job and taking a risk on an idea I believe in. I still have so much nervous energy that sometimes it feels I might actually spontaneously combust. But that’s why I’m never too far from my running shoes.