How running can help people with PTSD
The physical and mental benefits of everything from gentle jogging to serious running are well known and exercise (particularly running) can help reduce the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Research from the University of Texas concluded that participants who ran for 30 minutes immediately before their talk therapy session reported a steeper decline in PTSD symptoms, compared to those participants who had talk-therapy alone.
The reduction in symptoms is thought to be down to a boost in levels of a brain protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) from running. This BDNF protein helps the brain adapt to stressors and repair itself, but is generally low in people with PTSD. It is also involved with learning and memory and so plays a role in fear extinction by helping the brain establish context, and therefore a sense of safety.
The studies showed that those participants who exercised had increased levels of BDNF and became more receptive to therapy, which in turn, helped reduce the severity of their PTSD symptoms.
Joseph Miller said of the effect running has on his PTSD symptoms ‘Running is not a cure-all, but it continuously makes me better at dealing with PTSD, gives me the courage to face triggers, and the confidence that comes from facing a problem head on’.
As a frequent ultra-marathon runner, he commented ‘The unmistakable “that-guy-is-a-bad-ass” look on peoples’ faces a couple times a week really makes me confident. After all, if you have PTSD, then you are a badass. You endured something so miserable it damaged your brain. That is awesome, not shameful, and it is valuable to take some time everyday and remind yourself of that… Ultra-running will always be a doorway to feeling the way you should, and might also teach you more about yourself and how hard you can go. Sign up for your first ultra and let it break you, because that will remind you that you know how to drive on when you are broken.’
Charissa Jackson speaks equally is highly of the benefits of running on her PTSD symptoms, ‘But whenever those awful moments surface, I tap into what has proved to be my most vital medicine: exercise. Running and weight lifting help me shed PTSD like other people shed pounds.’
How else can running help people with PTSD?
Running can also make you feel like you are testing yourself and focusing on something positive. In effect, you are reflecting your body’s natural ‘fight or flight’ response to trauma. However, by running at your own pace – for however long you want – you are gaining an important degree of control. It can also be a great way to distract yourself from rumination.
If you need the safety of a gym, that’s fine, but many people love the fact you can run in the fresh air anytime, anywhere, free of charge. You just need sensible footwear and breathable clothing.
Running can have a positive effect on your mood, not least from the sense of accomplishment when you map and measure each day’s achievement. It can also bring back the sense of freedom and release you got when you were a child, running around playing ‘tag’ or just for the sake of it!
Running affects your hormones too, releasing endorphins that trigger positivity. Which is one of the main reasons that extensive research has found running can decrease depression.
The value of running links with other therapies and programmes that focus on the connection between emotional response and muscle tension – such as Progressive Muscle Relaxation, and Tension and Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE).
Added to that, all cardiovascular exercise boosts energy levels, focus and interest in food, and often helps people to sleep better.
Ideas to use running for PTSD relief
There is no set formula for how to use running to de-stress and release muscle tension. Though some people with PTSD find running in conjunction with meditation is especially beneficial. You can do initial breathing exercises to reach a meditative state, letting the rhythm of your steps improve your level of calmness.
If your hypervigilance allows, you can use music to enhance the experience and deepen the relaxation and release you might feel.
Why is running is not a universal therapy tool for PTSD?
The reason why running may not be suitable for everyone with PTSD is also rooted in fundamental science. Severe anxiety can affect your heart rate, breathing and muscle tension, all of which contribute to a cluster of symptoms known as hyperarousal.
Physical arousal from running can actually trigger a response that’s too similar, echoing the impact of PTSD. This is one of the main reasons some individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder actively avoid strenuous exercise.
Alternative to running and things to watch out for
For people with PTSD, there is no ‘one’ source of symptom relief. In fact, what helps one individual may trigger anxiety and panic in others. Running – like many other therapies and activities to ease PTSD symptoms – is something you should test and adapt to find what works best for you.
If you have underlying medical conditions that may create boundaries or risks please check with a doctor before starting regular running sessions. Also, learn to walk before you run! In other words, take things slowly and build up speed, distance and resistance (such as hills) gradually to avoid injury.
Test whether running alone, with a friend or in a group provides the most tension release and emotional comfort. Of course, running can be a therapeutic exercise carried out on a treadmill, if that is more comfortable. If you do find it doesn’t help or even increases your anxiety levels, try another aerobic exercise such as dancing, cycling, swimming or fitness classes.
The founder of PTSD UK found that she couldn’t go out running alone due to hypervigilance, so looked at alternatives, ‘I felt that I needed to get rid of the adrenaline coursing through my body – it was so electric and overwhelming – so I joined a gym. On the days I felt strong enough to get to the gym, I did the ‘safe’ classes – aqua-aerobics and dance aerobics – they consisted of me and lots of lovely retired ladies, so I felt safer than being out and about running on my own. It really helped me ‘use up’ that adrenaline, and I felt much better that day’.
As these examples have shown, running can be a holistic and effective non-pharmacological therapeutic option, but it’s important to note, that while choosing your PTSD recovery path you need to address both the symptoms and the underlying condition. NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.