Mental health is like running…

And just for clarification right at the start, I don’t mean running away.

So, here’s what I do mean:

I like to run. I’m not an especially good runner, I don’t run that fast or all that far. If someone asked me to run a marathon tomorrow, there’s very little chance I could do it. I’d give it a try (because I’m stubborn and like to prove myself) but I think I’ve got a good chance of not making it to the finish line. However, if you asked me to do a 10Km race tomorrow, I could do that. It wouldn’t be a walk in the park (it’d be a run in the park!) but I could do it.

Anxiety is like this. You can want to do something (say get into school when you haven’t been in a while) or even know you should do something because it’s good for you. But that doesn’t mean you can do it, just like that. Instead you need to build up slowly, just like I’d have to do to run the marathon. One step at a time, slowly working towards the goal. If it’s getting into school we’re talking about, this might involve first putting your uniform on and just wandering around the house, then the next step might be walking outside in your uniform, then walking down to school when it’s quiet (say one weekend or an evening), then getting to the gate on a school day, then making it through the gate and so on. Just like running where each time you do a little bit more, you push yourself just one more step. It wouldn’t be a walk in the park either, but it is possible. Every day I see incredibly brave people doing things which frighten them or which are difficult because they know beating anxiety makes life better.

Let’s take the analogy further. Low mood, feeling really sad, grief and depression are also a bit like running. It’s like running through treacle tied to a massive elastic band that keeps pinging you back. It’s incredibly hard to keep going forwards and way easier to stop running, sink down and let the treacle cover you completely. And when it does, even standing up is hard, let alone walking or running. And then, aiming for a marathon might seem like such an unobtainable target that you feel even more miserable. The marathon in our analogy might be going out with friends, getting a day’s work done, revising for an exam, spending time with family.

And so, just like a runner starting for the first time, the first steps are important. Just taking one step forward is progress (even if 2 steps back happen after). It’s the taking the step that matters. And then taking another, and another. It’s keeping breathing and keeping focused, even if the ‘run’ is to the end of the road and back again. That’s progress. Like a marathon, it’s not a sprint and slow and steady really does win the race. Every step, every single step forward is progress. Because, like running, when you are feeling low it’s what’s going on in your head that matters a great deal. And the intent to step forward and the very action of stepping forward takes great mental and physical energy, but they also demonstrate strength and will and a desire to move forward. And that’s what matters.

So if you are struggling, plan your first move, your first ‘training run’. It might be going to the garden and back. It might be texting a friend. It might be standing outside your front door for 1 minute or studying at your desk for 5 minutes or taking a long bath or going to bed on time or getting up when your alarm goes off. Whatever it is, it’s the start of your training. It’s the first step. The marathon awaits!

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