Exercise is one of the most effective ways to improve health and reduce stress. However, when anxiety arises during exercise, the effectiveness of your workout can suffer. Runners of all levels experience anxiety at some point, whether during races or regular runs. While a little anxiety can aid performance, too much leads to decreases in performance -- and can cause you to stop running altogether. Understanding how to overcome anxiety can help you enjoy running more, and can increase the benefits of your exercise.
The first step is to be sure that your physical and mental feelings are related to anxiety and not something else. This can be confusing, because running triggers many physical symptoms, such as labored breathing and physical stress, that can be confused with anxiety. Feelings of anxiety differ for everyone, but there are some common symptoms you can look for. These include chest pain and tightness, dizziness, change in body temperature, heart racing and muscle spasms, among others. You might also have thoughts of fear, panic, or heightened awareness or self-consciousness. Becoming aware of your symptoms is the first step toward overcoming them.
After you determine that what you are feeling is anxiety, the next step is to apply methods to help reduce your symptoms. First, breathe. When the body is placed under stress, this is the first element that is forgotten. Deep breathing helps relax the body and reduces some of the tightness and stresses placed on it.
Once you've applied a physical method of reducing anxiety -- breathing -- you can then apply some mental techniques to help reduce this stress. This can be done simultaneously with deep breathing or one after the other, in any order. One method of mentally reducing anxiety is to develop triggers -- words or phrases that remind you of what you want to be thinking of when you are at a tough or stressful point during your run. Many elite athletes use this method when they face challenges during races. Thinking of a word, such as "strength" when powering up a hill can help you overcome the unease of that hill, while a phrase as simple as "I can do it" will give you more confidence and reduce some anxiety related to performance. If you sense anxious feelings approaching, you can also use a specific intervention word, such as "STOP!" to interrupt negative thought patterns.
You can also reduce running anxiety when you're not running by using methods of visualization. Recite, rehearse, and visually perform your regular runs in your mind, both imagining what will happen when anxiety arises, and also visualizing anxiety-free runs and what they feel like. Use a run you perform frequently, and go in depth. Visualization is not simply thinking about your run. It involves going through every physical and mental aspect of the run and using all your senses in the visualization. Finding a coach or psychologist to help you with this can increase your ability to visualize and improve this area.
Try not to put pressure on yourself to overcome your anxiety. The more pressure you put on yourself, the more anxiety you will create. If anxiety arises and you do a poor job dealing with it, think positive. This is a great way to reflect and think about what you can do the next time that might work better in reducing your anxiety.