Neuroscience has shown that the repetitive motions and complex cognitive functions of running can trigger neurotransmitters, chemicals that boost the brain’s connectivity, thought patterns and decision-making—human qualities that are often compromised by the stress of life, especially in these troubled political times. Meanwhile, spiritual traditions remind us that turning our attention outward, from self-concern to the welfare of others, is the key to peace, love, and sanity. Why not bring these two streams together?
“Trauma doesn’t have to be a life sentence” – Peter Levine
For many people, dealing with the aftereffects of psychological trauma is a fact of life. Combat veterans and their families deal with the painful aftermath of combat; one in five Americans has been molested; one in four grew up with alcoholics; one in three couples have engaged in physical violence. Researchers have shown that survivors of accidents, disaster, and childhood trauma often endure lifelong symptoms ranging from anxiety and depression to unexplained physical pain, fatigue, illness, and harmful “acting out” behaviors. For trauma survivors, seemingly ordinary experiences can inexplicably evoke powerful impulses that can dictate their responses to daily life.
Research has shown how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. Activities like music, meditation, drama, yoga, and sport involvement offer new pathways to recovery by stimulating the brain’s natural neuro-plasticity. Creative therapists are employing exercises that help people focus on bodily sensations, because it’s largely through heightened body awareness that past traumas can be renegotiated and revisited rather than relived repeatedly.
Julia Cameron, writer of The Artist’s Way recommends writing morning pages—three pages of free association first thing in the morning every day as an informal therapy. I believe that distance running is an activity that can address the physiological roots of our emotions, in part by serving as an emergency “first-aid” measure during times of distress, offering immediate stress relief. In addition, The primal pleasure and pain of running can gradually neutralize the symptoms of trauma by reforming the body and brain for the better. With qualified guidance, the sport can offer a hopeful vision for self-leadership in the healing process.
Born in The 50’s
As fate would have it, I was given up for adoption within 72 hours of being born — a trauma with lifelong consequences. Known as the “primal wound,” it is the trauma that occurs when a very young child is separated from his or her mother. For a middle class kid, the 50’s lacked psychotherapeutic options. Once I grew into adulthood, I was faced with two choices — ignore the wound or heal it.
Too often I found myself totally unprepared for the cascade of repressed feelings of insecurity and self-blame that could rush to the surface under the typical pressures of life, a painful pattern that embarrassed and motivated me to work on myself. By the age of 30, running had become the center of gravity of a much broader spiritual discipline I was trying to follow. My idealistic aim was to cultivate my own spiritual growth while reversing emotional pattern behaviors through physical and mental improvement.
In effect I used running to compartmentalize my pain, much like the great Frank Shorter, Olympic marathon gold medalist in the 1972 Munich Games. In his inspiring memoir Shorter tells of the physical and emotional abuse he and his siblings suffered as children. Frank’s life story is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and the transformative power of sports.
While compartmentalizing can be a powerful ally, it cannot, by itself, heal trauma. It was talking about traumatic incidents from my childhood with trusted friends and skillful therapists that eventually helped me relive and reconcile what were mostly unintentional emotional transgressions within my adoptive family. I’m still learning about pre and perinatal psychology, attachment, bonding and the effects of loss.
However, I sometimes feel like there’s no end in sight, because the therapeutic process can take so long. There are times when my willingness to expose myself to painful memories feels just as traumatic as the events themselves. (I recently opened my adoption file for the first time ever!) That’s why I’m eternally grateful to have running as an additional source of help, balancing the inner psychological work with the sheer physicality of moving my body through nature.
The wonderful film, “Lion” (2016), based on the book, A Long Way Home, depicts Saroo Brierley’s poignant story of getting lost at the age of 5, thousands of kilometers from home. He survives alone for weeks on the rough streets of Calcutta before ultimately being transferred to an agency and adopted by a couple in Australia. 25 years later, despite his love and gratitude for his adoptive parents, Saroo’s yearning for his origins becomes unbearable. After an exhaustive search using Google Earth, he miraculously finds the landmarks he is looking for and sets off to find his family. Saroo’s incredible journey from India to Australia and back again underscores the importance of never letting go of the hope that drives the human spirit.
The Therapeutic Benefits of Running
1. Achievement – Running gives you a feeling of satisfaction. There’s an undeniable boost to one’s self-esteem associated with running 5K or 10K at one go. Even if you can only run 2K, that’s 2K more than you would have run if you had decided to stay home. Attaching a number to your run helps you to feel better about it, even if that number is in terms of minutes rather than kilometers. Some people even use pedometers so that they know how many steps they’ve taken during their run. Once again, this gives them a number; it quantifies their sense of achievement.
2. Endorphins – Another reason why running helps is because of the endorphins released in your body when you run. Endorphins are chemicals that elevate your mood and make you feel good. They’re released in any type of exercise, but especially cardio. There’s a certain type of security that comes with knowing that you can feel good even if it’s for a short period of time. The option to go for a run or get involved in a sport is always open to you. For someone who’s feeling depressed, this can be like a light at the end of a tunnel.
3. Health – As time goes on and you keep running or get involved in some sport, your health generally gets better. Your body feels good, even if your mind hasn’t caught up to it yet. Over time, the mind naturally catches up. So running can actually boost your mental mechanisms and improve your mood in the long run. It creates enthusiasm—the urge to do something, to try something, to keep moving forward. It creates motivation—the urge to achieve something. And it enables you to stay in touch with your feelings without repressing them or spilling them out completely.
4. Solitude – “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” – Jalauddin Rumi
The loneliness of the long distance runner creates a potent field of concentration that empowers the brain, bringing a conscious clarity to mundane thought patterns. Our petty judgments and opinions, the grudges we hold onto, and the stories we tell ourselves are more apt to simmer down, giving objective reality a foothold in our field of awareness. The silence has a quality and a dimension all its own. You can listen to silence and learn from it. When your run takes you outside and above the noise that frays the nerves, you can see yourself clearly, uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices. Then you can begin to face things exactly as they are.