According to a 2014 study, exercise, and particularly running can help reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
After a 12 week study, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin concluded that participants who ran for 30 minutes immediately prior to 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’ from running. This BDN protein is generally low in people with PTSD, but it helps the brain adapt to stressors and repair itself. BDN 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 blood plasma 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.’
Founder of PTSD UK, Jacqui Suttie, acknowledges however, than running may not be for everyone, ‘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’.
A new study at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is currently underway to continue the research behind exercise positively affecting post traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and is expected to last three years.
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 from 2005 and 2011 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.
You can read more about running and it’s affects on PTSD symptoms here.
IMAGE: ‘West Highland Way running’ by Robin McConnell