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Improving your mental health through running: part 2

Kim Dawson, professor of sport psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, talks about when running becomes an unhealthy obsession, and what to do about it

Yesterday we spoke with Kim Dawson, Ph.D., professor of sport psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University about how running benefits your mental health. In part two of our discussion, Dawson explains the point at which running may actually detract from our mental health, and what runners who find themselves in this position can do about it.

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When does running become bad for your mental health?

Dawson says that, just like anything we do, running can turn into an unhealthy obsession, and even an addiction.  She emphasizes that it should be something that fulfills or adds to your life, not detracts from it. But how do you know if running has moved from a healthy habit to an unhealthy obsession?

According to Dawson, the first sign that your love of running has gone too far is if it has become a “should” rather than a “want.” A certain amount of guilt to get you out the door is fine, but if you’re berating yourself for having to miss your run that day because of an injury, illness, or simply that your schedule didn’t allow it, there’s a good chance you’ve become over-dependent on it.

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She also points out that running can be an isolated sport, so if you’re choosing it for that purpose and you’re losing your social connections with the other people in your life, that’s another sign that it’s become an unhealthy obsession. For example, if you’re canceling plans with people or skipping your family dinner because of your running schedule, it may be time to ask yourself if running is still a healthy habit for you.

The basic question is, is this something that is contributing to my wellbeing, that makes me feel better when I do it than when I don’t do it,” says Dawson. “Is it something that I’m able to do in the long run, is it good for my health, is it good for my relationships?”

If the answer is no, then Dawson says running has become a negative self-behavior, which is something that you want to steer away from.

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What to do if  running has become an unhealthy habit

If you find yourself in this situation, Dawson says the key to overcoming it is to challenge yourself behaviorally to do something different, to put some limits on yourself, and get comfortable with the feeling that you want to do more. She also provides an example of what this looks like in practice:

“So set your watch and say I’m only going to do a 6K run, or I’m only going to do a half-hour run regardless of how I feel, and I’m going to go back and I’m going to have dinner with my family.”

She explains that you have to cognitively think about what you’re going to do with that extra time, and how that will contribute to your life just as much as running does. She notes that at the beginning, this is not going to feel great, and you’re going to experience a lot of guilty feelings. To counteract those feelings, Dawson suggests saying to yourself “what I’m taking away from my running I’m contributing to the other types of emotional wellbeing in my life.” 

“Running cannot be your only coping mechanism,” she adds. “You have to have other things in your life as well to be multifaceted and balanced.”

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