I was diagnosed with PTSD in the late fall of 2010.
I don’t believe it is a coincidence that my symptoms have decreased, and my healing progressed, as my running has become more intense over the past year. So I was delighted to see the article “Running Back From Hell”, by Christine Fennessy, in the March 2014 Runner’s World Magazine.
While her article mainly focused on the new research being conducted with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, I found it fascinating to read about the medical and psychological impact that running has on both the physical, and emotional, symptoms of PTSD.
Specifically, individuals with PTSD have low levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. Researchers measured the protein via blood samples before and after a 12 week program, with one group participating in running and therapy, and the other solely participating in therapy. “The group that ran showed an increase in BDNF, while levels of those in the therapy-only group stayed flat” (Fennessy 71).
For many with PTSD, Stacey Young-McCaughan, PhD, says “stress hormones don’t ever dissipate, they’re always on high alert. Other people have been on high alert so long, their bodies are just so exhausted, they can’t mount a stress response. Exercise helps retrain the body to respond to a stressor. You’re asking the muscles, heart, and lungs to work hard, and when you stop, you want the body to recover back to normal functioning. I think running helps metabolize stress hormones, and we could use it to help retrain the body – to relearn how to recognize stress, respond and recover” (117).
Given all the knowledge and awareness regarding the link between exercise and the healing effects on depression and anxiety, and health in general, this data may seem almost common sense. Of course exercise helps PTSD – exercise helps everything! What is it about running (particularly running longer distances) that specifically helps PTSD?
The article explains that it is more than just the chemical and hormonal boost that occurs during exercise, rather it is the emotions tied to resiliency and accomplishment. Alan Peterson, PhD, is a retired Air Force colonel who is conducting research on this at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. “With one study in particular, Peterson believes running may help soldiers recover from traumatic stress exposure and build resiliency” (Fennessy 74). In short, it’s not just the chemical changes that alleviate anxiety, insomnia, flashbacks, etc, rather the empowerment of accomplishing a (socially recognized) difficult feat, a powerful counter to the stigma of PTSD.
In other words, training to run a half or full marathon not only induces physiological changes in the body that alleviate physical PTSD symptoms, but the emotions that the training, and successful race day, evoke counteract the powerlessness and fear that PTSD sufferers carry.
This article resounded with me on so many levels. For one, despite the sore muscles and exhaustion following tough runs, the emptiness I feel in the hours afterwards is addictive. That’s the best way I can describe it – I feel hollowed out inside. While that may seem negative (particularly in our society which, I believe, is fixated on hedonistic pleasures), it’s the most peace I’ve felt in years. It seems impossible (or at least highly improbable) for me to feel angry, stressed, scared or worried after one or two or more hours of running. My body just isn’t producing those chemicals. It’s better than any pill.
Even better, though, is the feeling of accomplishment. The feeling of empowerment. So much of my life the past several years has been, and continues to be, outside my control. For a lifelong control freak, and protective mother, that’s been really, really hard (understatement). I accept it intellectually, but emotionally, it’s still a constant struggle to not feel victimized by my circumstances.
When I run 10, 11, 12 miles? I am doing something I never believed I could do.
And that’s something that cannot be taken away from me.