Starting a new hobby can be really difficult when you suffer from anxiety, especially when it’s a hobby that takes place in a crowded public place.
I was living in downtown Chicago when I first decided to try out running. I was looking for a hobby that would help me get in shape and give me an excuse to get outside.
The big downside was that running through downtown Chicago meant having to pass hundreds or thousands of people on every run. In my anxiety-ridden mind, I imagined every single one of those people would be staring at me as I passed them by.
Looking for Excuses
Although part of me really wanted to give running a try, my anxiety kept standing in the way. I found myself searching for any excuse that I could find to put off the initial run.
At first, I spent days reading through online running forums, “researching” how to start running. I told myself that I wanted to make sure I was doing things correctly, but I was really just putting off actually getting started.
I read up on Couch to 5k, a popular program for beginning runners that builds endurance by alternating between walking and running. I downloaded a Couch to 5k app for my phone and tried to test it out in my apartment.
Then I started obsessing about running gear. I had read that you can injure yourself if you don’t have the proper running shoes, so I ordered a pair online and waited for them to arrive.
I even worried about my running form. I pictured myself going for a run and not knowing how to move my legs and arms correctly. I watched videos of runners and tried to copy them by running in place in my apartment.
It was all completely ridiculous. Running shoes, running apps, and running form videos can all be useful for runners, but they really aren’t necessary to just go on a single 20-minute first run. Unfortunately, anxiety doesn’t play by the rules of rationality.
I probably lasted a month until I finally ran out of excuses. I had everything ready to go, and all I had to do was get out the door.
I remember my anxiety peaking as I got dressed to go on my first run. I was literally shaking with nervousness. I felt awkward even leaving my apartment because, in my mind, my exercise clothing would make me stand out to all the neighbors.
I started out by just walking for ten minutes, as prescribed by the Couch to 5k app I had downloaded. I was grateful for those ten minutes because they let me put some distance between myself and the neighbors I saw every day.
Then it was finally time to run, and I’ll admit that it really did feel awkward at first. I overthought how to swing my arms and how long my strides should be, and it felt like everyone was watching me (although in reality, I’m sure I was largely unnoticed).
The Couch to 5k app starts with very short running periods, lasting only one minute at a time. So, it wasn’t long before I switched back to walking, and felt a lot of relief.
Each time that the app switched back to running, I felt a little less awkward about it. I also started getting more exhausted and out of breath, which meant I couldn’t focus as much on my anxious thoughts. (I know now though that I was running way faster than I should have been.)
By the end of my first run, my anxiety about running had already gotten way better. It definitely wasn’t gone completely, but it had weakened enough that I was willing to go for another run later that week. With each run after that, my anxiety continued to subside, until running finally became so familiar to me that the anxiety almost entirely disappeared. Now, several years later, I still do get anxious about runs on rare occasions, but it isn’t a common occurrence at all.
Pushing through that initial run was way more mentally difficult for me than it was physically difficult. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made though because running has become one of the most fun parts of my day and an essential tool for my mental health.