The benefits of regular exercise for improving mood are widely accepted. Exercise releases feel-good brain chemicals that may help to combat depression and, according to the Mayo Clinic, can make a big difference to mood and wellbeing. Researchers claim there is a “compelling” body of evidence around exercise boosting mood. A 2006 review of 11 studies investigating the effects of exercise on mental health found it to be a strong intervention for depression, and the charity Mind recommends regular cardiovascular exercise, such as running, as effective for treating mild to moderate depression.
I’ve always used exercise to help manage stressful life events. In the past 20 years, running has helped me cope with break-ups and family stress. I turned to running one again last summer when I suffered a tremendous loss. When my mother died,
I decided to sign up for a half-marathon.
I believed the focus of a fitness goal would help me deal with my grief. It didn’t entirely work out that way. I enjoyed the training and it certainly boosted my mood, but my energy levels were poor and, on race day, I really struggled, despite completing all the training. I underestimated the amount of physical fatigue that grief can bring. On race day, I simply didn’t have enough fuel in the tank. Not that my performance mattered. There will always be other half-marathons.
But it did make me wonder if I’d fully dealt with my grief. I hadn’t been overly emotional about losing my mum, despite being very close to her and caring for her for almost a decade. Which begged the question, had I fully dealt with my grief or just buried my emotions while overdoing my training? At what point is it better to confront your emotions and deal with trauma head on, rather than trying to distract yourself entirely through running?
Experts gladly acknowledge the mental benefits of exercise but admit there is a balance to be found and it shouldn’t be used to suppress emotions. “Exercise, such as running, is a great way of helping us to keep our emotions regulated and balanced and produces natural endorphins within the body that help improve mood,” says Dr Nick Mooney, a clinical psychologist for brain health experts Re:Cognition Health (recognitionhealth.com). “Regular exercise can therefore be very helpful in helping us to get through difficult and traumatic periods of our lives. However, like any activity, there is always the possibility that we can choose to exercise as a means of avoiding unpleasant emotions. This might prevent the natural and painful processing of these emotions. You might also inadvertently learn that the only way of coping with stress is to exercise.”
Spotting the signs
Recognising the signs that we may need help or support alongside regular exercise is crucial. “A person might like to seek professional support to manage difficult emotions if the coping mechanism – i.e. exercise – is causing them to behave in a manner that is at odds with how they would like to be,” says Mooney. “For example, a person may choose to avoid socialising or seeing family members in favour of exercising if this means they can avoid uncomfortable conversations.”
When it comes to dealing with bereavement or a break-up, we are conditioned to work through the five stages of grief. Skipping them can cause problems. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (see box). “Every single human being is designed to acknowledge a loss in the five stages of grief,” says Christophe Sauerwein, a psychologist and spokesperson for the iCAAD, the International Conference on Addiction and Associated Disorders (icaadevents.com). “We believe sadness to be bad sometimes but, actually, we need to become sad about something we have lost to realise we have lost it. Doing a bit of exercise will help to smooth down the process of expressing our emotions and will channel them out, but running could inform a process of denial that’s not healthy.
However, Sauerwein points out that running may play a role in the second stage of grief – anger. “Running or doing exercise is a good way to channel out the anger, so there’s something healthy there,” he adds. “Moderate exercise helps because it’s about getting you out of a state of numbness.”
If this state of numbness stems from clinical depression, though, it is a completely different story and must be handled with care. Using exercise to feel a bit better and not dealing with our problems is an extremely fine balance. “Are you running away from something when you run?” asks Sauerwein. “What are you running from? Your thoughts, obsessions, inability to accept the situation? This is when it becomes a toxic process.”
It’s important to stress that the five stages of grief apply to divorce and relationship break-ups, as well as bereavements. “Divorce is a loss,” says Sauerwein. “We lose a relationship and what makes that difficult is the ex-wife/husband or partner still exists. The loss and grief is about the loss of the relationship and the fact that the other person is still here, running his or her own life.”
Whatever the reason, grief is not to be underestimated, even if you think you are feeling OK. “Any type of loss creates grief and, in my experience, grief is the most painful emotion that a human can experience,” says psychotherapist Anna Pinkerton, author of the book Smile Again: Your Recovery From Burnout, Breakdown and Overwhelming Stress (annapinkerton.com). “Runners may avoid grief by doing more running or taking it up for the first time. Grief is so disabling and overwhelming but it needs to be worked through.”
So what are the signs that might suggest we aren’t working through our grief properly? “If you know a person who was bereaved or has lost a partner and you know they haven’t cried but they are still managing to run every day, it could be a simple equation like that,” says Pinkerton. “Lots of people can deal with physical agony caused by extending beyond their physical limits, like in extreme sports. They can feel that pain because that’s more approachable for them than to feel the utter devastation of grief.”
To find the balance between using exercise to make us feel better and working properly through our emotions, we need to accept our feelings. “We were all born to have the full range of feelings so no feelings should be out of bounds,” says Pinkerton. “Envy, jealousy, happiness, anger… we should experience them in order to create an inner balance. We are out of balance if we say: ‘I’m never going to experience grief. I will carry on regardless and fill my life with activity and not have feelings’.”
Another sign you could be running too much and not confronting your emotions is if you are not enjoying it. I didn’t enjoy that half-marathon. I knew I had pushed myself too far. “Are you doing it because you need it as a drug?” asks Pinkerton. “If your enjoyment has gone, that’s an early sign you’re not dealing with things.”
Pinkerton also believes that we can never truly escape from grief. “It’s normal to want to avoid pain but the sooner you can get on with grieving, the better, because otherwise the body will store it,” she says. “It’s very, very hard to have an emotional injury. It requires our time and attention. I work with sports people and people very high up in companies. They keep denying self-care and, unfortunately, something else will happen to make them be aware of it. That’s where breakdown and burnout comes in. Bereavement is the most horrendous experience. Listen to what you need. It’s OK to have what you need. Be prepared to be fully human. We think envy and jealousy are terrible. We think we’re supposed to be happy all the time. Feelings are transient and you move through them. Feelings aren’t meant to last.”
Counselling may be the answer, alongside regular exercise. “Alongside the exercise and good, healthy habits in moderation, counselling combines pretty well,” says Sauerwein. “We also know that any loss is helped by socialising. Running can be a lonely, isolated activity. The most important thing to be aware of is that, if you exercise excessively on unprocessed feelings, the feelings are going to be repressed but will come out some day. It’s like putting a lid on a volcano. It all seems OK, then, one day, there is an eruption.”
The five stages of grief explained
Denial initially helps us overcome our loss. We are still in a state of shock and this helps us to pace our feelings of grief.
Anger is a necessary part of the healing process. You might be angry that a loved one died or a relationship ended.
Bargaining means you would do anything to hold onto that person. You’d never be angry at them if God would let them live.
Depression is when you feel empty; this is natural. It would be unusual not to feel depressed after losing a loved one.
Acceptance doesn’t mean your loss is OK. It’s about accepting the reality of the situation and starting to live again.
Emotions and physical health
Experts believe that shutting out our emotions and not dealing with them can be detrimental to our physical health in the long run. “When we continually try to avoid dealing with uncomfortable emotions, we tend to make them worse,” says Dr Nick Mooney. “Not only can avoidance be physically and mentally exhausting, it can also take us away from engaging in activities that bring us true pleasure, like socialising. As a result, there is a greater risk of these normal painful feelings growing into something more serious, such as an anxiety disorder or clinical depression.”
Too much exercise and avoiding emotions can also cause other issues. “Regular physical exercise, motivated by an avoidance of emotional distress, can also be associated with eating disorders,” says Mooney. “There is also a greater risk of developing injuries that may not be resolved properly. Exercise is a great way of improving mood but other ways include maintaining a healthy, balanced diet; regularly socialising with others; engaging in hobbies and meaningful activities, like giving back to others; good sleep; and getting plenty of sunlight.”