I am a psychotherapist who is also a runner and member of the New York Road Runners Club.
My twenty years of experience working with addicts and alcoholics have shown me that those clients who are engaged in significant physical exercise are, for the most part, staying sober and getting free from codependency , and those who are not consistently working out are struggling. When Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in the 1930's the benefits of running and regular exercise were not as fully understood as they are today.
By the beginning of the 21st Century, the benefits of aerobic exercise have become widely known. Running, in and of itself, has been demonstrated in many studies to reduce anxiety, ameliorate depressed mood, inoculate against relapse, and improve self-esteem. Running is a superior way of keeping the focus on yourself and moving from letting go of negative behaviors and from a victim mentality toward action and empowerment. You let go of drinking and start working out. You let go of feeling sorry for yourself and blaming others, towards taking action and empowering yourself.
Nevertheless, many people who struggle with these issues do not wind up developing a consistent exercise routine. Why? Because getting started with a running program is difficult. Habit change is difficult.
When I began running, at the age of 51, I had not run in any formal way since high school. At 51, after jogging four blocks, I would need to stop and catch my breath. Four years later, I have run eight half-marathons (13.1 miles each) and I run 40 miles per week or more. I ran in the New York City Marathon in 2014. I used to be someone who struggled with depressed mood and anxiety. Now, in recovery, I am living with joy and freedom. Assuredly other factors have contributed to that sense of wellbeing, but my running routine has been crucuially significant in this radically joyous way of being.
You too can experience this exuberant way of being no matter the external circumstances of your everyday life. And, if you wish, you too can embrace a running program. As human beings we are social beings who need others, who benefit from commitment to and support from others. That commitment and support are especially helpful when we are going about the development of a new habit. I was willing to begin a program of exercise because I had developed high blood pressure and because I had young children who needed my support.
I did not have the luxury of allowing myself to not take good care of the self which took care of them. Initially, I began running on my own with that awareness as motivation. And then my younger son joined me as part of his physical education program at school. In 2012, he ran the New York City Half Marathon with me. In 2013, my older son joined me in training for the New York City Half Marathon and the Rutgers Half Marathon – he dropped over 40 pounds and experienced the victory of completing both of those races. The fact that I was running with others, and in a sense, for others helped me to keep running on those mornings when I would have preferred to stay in bed or read the paper.
Running helped me to become aware of my body, and then, of my emotions. At the start, that awareness was of resistance, fear and struggle in my body. That was replaced as I continued running, by other sensations – pain, frustration, joy, sadness, glee, ecstasy, a subtle and sustained sense of well-being – sensations and emotions that I felt at a deep level.
A recent article in the New York Times describes the experience of nearing the end of the New York City Marathon: “every emotion you can imagine is written all over your face.” One cannot run for very long and be depressed at the same time – depression is a disconnection from the body and from emotion. And one cannot usually be running and be anxious at the same time – the anxiety and fear are present before the running begins but are gone within the first few minutes. And that sense of wellbeing tends to persist throughout the day.
As a psychotherapist, I recognized that those very simple (although not easy) things that were working for me were working for my clients who were also running. They were becoming less depressed, less anxious, more joyful, and more resilient. My focus switched from helping people to overcome or cope with problems and symptoms, to life enhancement. The problems were defined and acknowledged but we jointly became more desirous of and focused on living in the solution. We did not deny or resist the reality of painful emotions or challenging life situations: on the contrary, we literally ran right toward them and embraced them. We did not deny our pain, we did not resist it, but we also did not cling to it. We held it gently in our bodies and kept going. We moved out of the more cognitive arena of “figuring things out” to the direct connection with the wisdom of the body.
When my clients run with me, each of us has a unique experience which cannot be predicted before we run. No one can say for sure what one is going to experience physically and emotionally today. But each of us is going to experience something powerful. Each of us is going to tap into some emotion, some memory, some inner experience, which will lead to a growing wisdom and effectiveness. The commitment to me or to the group allows the individual to get out there on those days when he/she would prefer to stay in bed. In a run, we will typically run for 30 minutes and then process the emotions and insights which we have experienced, and claim that learning as gift and aptitude which we can tap into throughout the rest of the day or week.
During a run, you will gain access to parts of your self – like your deep feelings and intuitive wisdom – which are blocked or slowed by your ordinary thinking and by talk therapy. I will stay with you as you go through those experiences and will help you to claim those hitherto unknown or underutilized aspects of yourself. For those who are just getting started, I will accompany you on jogs/walks which will allow you to gradually develop the ability to run while at the same time experiencing your emotions and your body.
One proviso: I am a psychotherapist. I am not a personal trainer or a fitness specialist. No one who has been physically inactive for a long time should embark on a running program without a complete physical examination and the green light from a physician. I will encourage you as you run and as you tap into your emotions – but I am not going to push you. Because I am not a physician, I do not know your physical limitations. I strongly encourage you to have a complete medical evaluation before beginning a running program by yourself or with me. My focus is on supporting you in living your life to the full – emotionally, physically, interpersonally, spiritually, and intelligently. My desire is to assist you in letting go of the blocks to that full life. But we do that in a gradual way, joining the run, and pacing, on this great journey. There is such a thing as too much exercise, and this is especially the case with certain medical conditions. I want you to live fully, and that requires continuing to live. So do get a complete medical evaluation before beginning a running therapy program with me, or by yourself.
Running also trains the body and the mind in action, in being pro-active. Just talking about change, although often an important part of the change process, does not result in change. In running, it is very clear that the responsibility for running, for getting up and getting out the door, is solely on you. No one else. And the work benefits you directly. If you want what we have, you can come and get it. It is sitting right here, waiting for you. Action is required. It is simple, but not easy. And you can do it. And the benefits are excellent! So don’t wait. Take the actions. Begin now. Let’s go. There is a great spectacular way of life waiting for you.