Let’s talk about the connection between running and stress.
Stress is one of today’s most common ailments. It affects everyone regardless of age, location, or profession. And this range of sufferers has led to a wide array of coping mechanisms. People will sleep, read, or watch TV to give their brains a rest from stress. Others will spend time with friends. Some will listen to music or eat. But a small handful – about 14% of Americans according to a recent study – relax through exercise.
Runners make up 20% of people who exercise to relax. And while all exercise can reduce stress levels, running offers unique benefits that other sports might not. Running gives us a change of scenery. It lets us work off excess energy. And these benefits are important. But, more than that, running stimulates the brain. And it does it in more than one way.
Researchers are still trying to decode the exact effect running has on the brain. But they’ve found out a few specifics already. And these specifics, coupled with the other ways it helps us reduce stress, makes running an ideal way to relax.
External Factors Regarding Running and Stress
Running has a lot of neurological benefits. But there are a few ‘external’ factors that we should also cover. These factors often cause more immediate relaxation. And, for that reason, they should be covered first.
Change of Scenery
The human brain is a strange thing. To a certain extent, it craves order and routine. But it also craves novelty. And this is where running can truly shine. Running is a routine. It requires us to put one foot in front of the other in a specific way. Otherwise, we risk injury. But, when we run outside, we also get to experience new and novel surroundings.
This could mean running a new trail every week. Or it could mean running the same trail in different conditions. or at different times. It’s a combination that meets our need for routine while still feeding our minds new and novel data.
Researchers aren’t quite sure why running outside offers such a mood boost. But study after study has shown it to be true. People feel happier when they spend a little bit of time in nature. This could be as simple as a local park or your own back yard. Or it could mean jogging through a local forest preserve. Provided that the preserve allows visitors, of course.
For most people, stress creates an odd kind of tension. This tension has us pacing our living rooms or bouncing our knees. We check the fridge eight times even though we’re not hungry. Our pens tap against tables or our nails drum on desks. And as frustrating as all this can be, we can’t help it. We’re restless.
Some researchers think our brains feel bored even when tasks and projects overload our minds. Or we’re worrying over an upcoming appointment, due date, or event. But these thoughts become stale after a while. Our minds circle them enough times that it feels like a dog chasing its own tail. So it creates new stimuli by making us restless.
Running gives us an outlet for that energy. And that leads us right back to our need for new scenery. It’s a one-two punch for our stress levels that leaves runners much happier in the end.
Some people feel stressed when they’re around other people. But some people crave community and feel more stressed when they’re alone. Running provides a great community for both people. Those who want to spend time alone can go on solo runs. But when they want to talk about their runs, other runners are happy to listen.
If, on the other hand, a runner prefers groups, they can organize a group run. They can join marathons or training classes. There are countless ways runners choose to gather or share information. And all of them help reduce stress.
Internal Factors Regarding Running and Stress
Running offers several external benefits that reduce stress. But its direct effect on the brain is even more impressive.
Most people know that running releases endorphins. But it also specifically releases serotonin and norepinephrine. These are the brain’s “happy chemicals”. They not easy to pronounce and even more of a pain to spell. But they are crucial to our good moods.
Researchers often link low levels of both chemicals to depression and some anxiety disorders. And stress just complicates these conditions. Which just makes running even more ideal. The chemicals it releases help to alleviate stress and boost a person’s mood.
Changes the Way We Think
Stress breaks us down. This is especially true when we can’t change whatever it is that causes our stress. Complex problems, situations we can’t change, people we can’t avoid. Dealing with the unchangeable day in and day out can lead to a feeling of defeat. Running offers a solution.
We set our own running goals. We decide if they should be simple or complex. And every time we achieve one of our goals, our brains register the victory. Whether or not we realize it, these victories change the way we think. The psychological term for it is the “cognitive process”. Stress leads to a negative cognitive process. We feel defeated by stress, so we expect more defeat.
But things change when we achieve our fitness goals. We hit a new mile goal and our brains realize that success is an option. Each new achievement confirms this realization. Soon enough our minds expect victory – or at least progress – in other areas of our life too. Shifting to a positive cognitive process won’t cure stress. There is no cure for stress. But we manage our stress better when we remember that we can reach our goals. It might take some time, but we can get there.
Supports the Hippocampus
Our hippocampus is the part of the brain that helps us focus. And stress makes it shrink. Multiple studies support this, for all that it sounds like science fiction. Running, on the other hand, supports the hippocampus. Six months of running can reverse shrinking caused by stress or depression. This, in turn, improves our focus. People might think of focus as a way to combat stress. But focus helps us finish projects or get through tough situations.
‘Negative Affect Reactivity’
Most people have never heard of ‘negative affect reactivity’. And that’s not surprising. It’s a relatively new term for the way we handle stress. A person with a high negative affect reactivity means that stress – or any unpleasant development – has a strong effect. Their blood pressure goes up and they become agitated. They might sweat or shake.
A person with a low negative affect reactivity, on the other hand, stays cool under pressure. They believe that the problem will pass. Their body has little or no strong reaction. That’s not to say they don’t get upset, because they might. It just won’t cause a lot of physical reactions.
Runners tend to have low negative affect reactivities. Researchers don’t know why–at least not yet. But it may have something to do with the strain running places on our bodies. Our bodies know how to handle adrenaline and endorphins. Our hearts can handle more stimulation before they increase our heart rate. We handle fitness “stress” very well. Which means we handle other stress better than most.
Prefrontal Cortex Stimulation
Running’s impact on the prefrontal cortex is probably the biggest weapon we have against stress. And that’s why I save it for last. This is the one area that researchers have dug into. And their discoveries are amazing.
Our frontal cortex controls our decision making and planning. Stress reduces connection strength in this portion of the brain. This, in turn, leads to burnout. But running can help! Running stimulates the prefrontal cortex, though researchers have yet to find why. And it’s not minor stimulation either. Running stimulates the prefrontal cortex as much as playing an instrument does.
How does this relieve stress? Stimulating the prefrontal cortex boosts our decision making and planning abilities. It helps us come to decisions and find solutions that our stress-fatigued brains could not see before.
And there you have it: that’s everything you need to know about the relationship between running and stress. Make sure to leave your comments below!