When the Anxious Athlete Takes Over

As it’s World Mental Health Day today, it seems like the best time for me to talk about my anxiety around running.

At least, it used to be just around running.

Earlier this year, I found that the sort of anxiety I used to have on start lines – you know, the fidgeting, wondering if I had time to make it to the toilet (AGAIN), generally being so tense I could have snapped, occasionally crying – had started to worm its way in to my every day life. I would go for a walk at lunch only to find that I would suddenly have to rush to the toilet (apologies to the person working in Paperchase who I literally ran away from as she tried to serve me). I started having panic attacks on the train which resulted in my holding up an entire 8-carriage to London. As someone who has to commute by train every day, the mere thought of simply getting to work would fill me with dread and I stopped wanting to leave the house.

I no longer felt like me.

I don’t really know what triggered this all. At the start of the year I had some stressful things going on and it’s possible that they just accumulated to breaking point, and I’ve always carried stress in my gut. But what I was certain of was that this situation couldn’t continue. I’m nothing if not proactive, so back in March I had some tests done at the doctors which all came back clear, and so reasoning that the problem was more mental than physical, I booked an appointment to see Dan Regan, who as well as being a fellow runner, is also a hypnotherapist. A friend had had a really positive experience with him and couldn’t recommend him enough, and his testimonial page was full of faces that I recognised from the sports scene in Ely. Thankfully Dan does free consultations so there was no massive upfront commitment, but as soon as we’d had that initial meeting I knew I wanted to work with him.

When it comes to picking a therapist of any kind, you have to be comfortable with them, and Dan and I got on immediately. Plus having shared knowledge of pre-race anxiety meant that he knew exactly where I was coming from. Over the course of 6 sessions he taught me coping mechanisms (some worked for me, some didn’t), gave me audio recordings to use at home and of course we had the hour long session to talk things through and do some hypnotherapy.

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Smiling when running!

And you know what? It really worked wonders for me. Don’t get me wrong, IBS is still a part of my life (I wasn’t expecting Dan to cure that!) and I still have situations that make me feel uncomfortable, but –  bar the odd wobble – the sheer panic I used to feel in that situation has gone. Instead I focus on my breathing, or tense the muscles in my legs or play word association games in my head. Even when it comes to races, even though I still get nervous (don’t we all, to some extent?), I don’t let it overwhelm me to the point of terror. If my stomach decides it’s not going to play ball I just accept it, and refuse to let myself despair over it. Instead, I focus on what I’m about to do and make sure I’m near those people who know what I’m dealing with and know how to help me through it.

And that’s where I need to say some thank yous. As well as to Dan, I need to thank my ever patient husband who went out of his way to try and minimise stressful situations for me, to Justin for being an epic sounding board on the way to races and to Pete who would try and distract me with games on the train and who was the one who purposefully blocked the train doors with my bike so that I wouldn’t get stuck and find myself going all the way to London.

Seriously Pete – who knew giraffes weighed that much?!

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I still consider my anxiety around my stomach issues to be a work in progress, but I have Dan’s audios to hand, an amazing support network around me and I’ve recently been enjoying pacing other people rather than putting myself under pressure to run super quickly. That’ll come back with time though. For now, it’s enough for me to be finishing a run with a massive smile on my face.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, you can find a number of resources available here.

Acupuncture and I: A New Love Story

Regular readers of this blog will know that 2016 was a tough running year for me. I had so many injury niggles over the year, and my anxiety around my running got so bad that I had to step back from races and even longer runs because my IBS flare ups were making it impossible to run.

But then towards the end of last year, a friend reached out with the idea of an experiment of sorts, after reading my blog post about my IBS. This friend is an acupuncturist in Ely, and we know each other through a mutual friend. We actually ran Insane Terrain as part of a team of 4 back in 2014. So, he offered to give me a few free sessions of acupuncture, and if they went well I could tell you guys about it, and if they didn’t help me, we could just part ways and continue to meet up at the odd get together.

Now I’ve always been pretty open to the idea of “alternative therapies” (the category that acupuncture tends to get lumped into) so I was more than happy to give it a go. After an introduction session where Anthony spent about an hour learning about my medical background (reasonably complex) and commenting on my “slippery” pulse (that didn’t sound like a compliment), I then had a cluster of treatments over a 6 week period, before moving to a treatment every 4-6 weeks.

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Insane Terrain. Yes those shorts were odd.

The good thing about Anthony is that although he is incredibly knowledgeable about what he does, he is in no way preachy about it, something I would struggle to get on board with. Instead he just drops into the conversation the fact that I have too much “Yang” (always go, go, go for me) in between the two of us putting the world to rights discussing everything from politics to reality TV. He is incredibly easy to talk to and is also a huge advocate of discussing the importance of mental health, a cause close to my heart (he highly recommends the Headspace app and is the brains behind Talking FreELY, a new Mental Health Awareness group in Ely). All of these things make a great practitioner.

As for the treatment itself, I do get a load of needles put into me (I think the most was maybe about 25) but they don’t hurt. Sometimes they cause a pins and needles sensation but it’s never uncomfortable. Anthony also uses moxa, a herb which he lights and allows to smoulder on my back which is then removed as soon as I start to feel the heat. It’s used to impact on the flow of “qi” in the area being treated, and I am obsessed with the smokey aroma it gives off. A nice side effect. He also often places ear seeds on my ear on trigger points where I can press on them whenever I feel my anxiety building.

But I guess the question is, did acupuncture work for me? My IBS issues during training all but disappeared (apart from when I failed to avoid triggers, such as episodes of unusually high stress or a super strong coffee less than 2 hours before a 10 mile run – idiotic) and my general demeanour around races has been a lot calmer. But the real test was always going to be the Cambridge Half Marathon. A race with a capacity of 9000 runners is huge for me. I hate being in large crowds, and in previous years I would be unbearable to be around from about 2 weeks before the race. Usually I would be maybe 15% excited and 85% nervous about a race like this, but this year it was easily the other way around. I also planned my morning pretty carefully, hanging out at my sister’s until about 10 past 9, before running/jogging to Jesus Green, using the completely empty public toilets there (perhaps I shouldn’t be letting you lot in on this tip!) and then simply hopping the gate into my starting pen 4 minutes before the race was due to start. I avoided all of those stress triggers, and went on to do the race of my life. I firmly believe that the treatment Anthony has done on me has played a huge part in my running epiphany, and I’ve been a (paying) customer of his since the start of the year, and will continue to be from now on.