Outrunning an Anxiety Attack

Suicide is a permanent solution to a crisis point that will pass. If you need to speak with someone urgently, click the button for some resources that will help keep you alive.

Get Help

I was breathing deep but still short of breath. I had run the same road for years but all of a sudden the whole place seemed foreign to me. It felt like I was lost in a hostile territory though I was barely five miles from home. Every passing runner on the trail was like nails on a chalkboard to me. Just seeing them overloaded my senses. I wanted to hide. I wanted to seek shelter. But what was there to be afraid of and from whom was I hiding? The road in front of me started to blur, and my breath got even shorter.

“Oh no,” I cried to myself, “it’s happening.”

An anxiety attack will get you when you least expect it. Sure, there are situations you know will make you more prone to attack but the bad ones, the ones that knock you on your butt and make you afraid you’re going to die, those attacks like to wait for the most inconvenient or unexpected moments to pounce.

Until recently, running used to be my escape from depression. It was the one time I wasn’t choking on the agony of my mental illness. Recently, as I’ve started to return to longer distances, a run is now a trigger for my anxiety. It’s a new obstacle to wrap my head around.

Today’s run was supposed to be a good one, my longest in almost a year, yet here I was fighting to survive, not the run but the attack that came out of left field.

The run itself was fine. Physically I wasn’t doing badly. My pace was consistent, my legs felt more than capable, and there was no soreness in my joints. I wasn’t struggling because of bad nutrition. It wasn’t the fact that I was underprepared, and it wasn’t that I’m too fat to be chasing marathon dreams. So why, if everything was going according to plan, was my run quickly becoming a disaster? It was a stupid anxiety attack.

The entire week I set my expectations to prepare myself mentally. I knew the distance might bother my anxiety, so I planned ahead and worked to settle myself. I was sure to remember that I had run this distance before and that it wasn’t too far. I tried to quell the anxiety all week.

Even the morning of, I felt uneasy about it. I felt like something bad was going to happen. Still, I remained confident. I reminded myself of all the reasons this could be a good run, and I set my sites on finishing.

As I started, the first half was rough as usual. When I’m building miles for a race, my first and last mile, of any distance, seem to be miserable. So I wasn’t too surprised. I attempted to settle into a pace and continued onward while still trying to set my expectations for the road ahead just to quiet that rumbling anxiety.

Anxiety makes me very aware of how far away from home I am. When I go to a trail for a run, it translates to being very aware of how far away from my car I am. I guess that represents safety from the pressure or whatever. I still don’t fully get it.

Well, when you’re running, it’s not pleasant to think about the distance you’re trying to cover. You want to let your mind wonder to anything but the job at hand. So in contrast, here I am, with a condition that makes me almost meditate on how far I’m going. It’s constant torture. Still, I attempted to keep calm.

I was over a mile into the run, and I was holding it together. The anxiety over the distance was there, but I thought I had a good handle on it. It wasn’t going to be a great run; I conceded, but it still didn’t have to be a bad one.

And then they showed up.

I set my expectations for everything. I planned for the ‘scary’ distance, the soreness in my muscles, the possible frustration over new shoes, and even the cold temperature. I accounted for everything that could screw me up except for the crowd of people that happened to share the trail with me.

A kids’ running club decided to use the trail to train that day. There may have been 80 kids and parents running out there, but it felt like an army in the hundreds. With every pack I crossed paths with, my anti-anxiety armor started to fall off. All the affirmations, all the set expectations just dropped to the ground with every footfall.

I felt trapped, stuck on the trail. I hadn’t run far enough to turn back for home yet. I still needed to go to my halfway point for the turnaround. My breathing started to shorten. Another pack of kids, this time, there were much more. I doubt they even noticed me, but I felt like each and every one of their eyes, were like lasers, burning through my clothes and into my skin.

Running Against an Army with my Anxiety Attack

“They know I’m here” my brain screamed. “They know I exist, but I can’t run away from them because we’re all on this same narrow trail.”

Still, I kept moving. I wasn’t going to let some dumb panic attack stop me from completing my distance, so I tried to settle back into a pace. I even tried not to think about that child runner militia all trained to attack me with their judgments. I attempted to focus on truth and not what my emotions were telling me was real.

But, every time I found peace again, another crowd of kids emerged and the nightmare would return. As each group approached, I felt naked on stage waiting to get ridiculed and abused by these ‘evil’ little strangers.

Every encounter made it harder to put the distance out of my mind. I was terrifyingly far away from the hideout of my car. I just wanted to be done. I wanted to disappear so they couldn’t see me anymore. I feared being seen by anyone. I resented my existence at that moment.

I was all alone, stuck on an out-and-back run that I just couldn’t finish soon enough. It felt like I was running through a war zone intent to destroy me. I was just jogging in California, but I might as well have been running through like Kuwait in 1990.

“What was I thinking trying to run again with this kind of mental illness?” I thought.

“I’m a failure,” I cried to myself.

“Crap, more on the horizon. Here we go again.”

Then the crowds started to get bigger, and all the feelings began to amplify. I couldn’t take it. I pulled out my GPS to see how much longer I had until I could turn back for the car. I didn’t want to look because I knew it hadn’t been long enough. I was right. I still had a half a mile before I could turn back. Still, I kept going.

“Crap, more on the horizon. Got to keep going.”

How I survived an anxiety attack (when nothing else worked)

Once an anxiety attack jumps you, you have to do the things you know work. You have to go to your list of proven tricks to help quiet the storm inside you. While running, I did a quick mental inventory of my lists. What could I do to get through this anxiety attack? As you can imagine, on a run, most of the things weren’t available, so I was pretty screwed.

I finally approached the turnaround; it was like my brain told my heart to stop pumping blood to my muscles. My body was shutting down on me. Here I was, in a hostile territory with my only transportation out of here (my legs) quitting on me. I knew I still had gas in the tank. I knew my muscles were fine. I knew my body had everything it needed to get me through this run and yet here I was spitting out fumes.

Adam mid Anxiety Attack

I snapped this photo at the peak of my Anxiety Attack.

Defeated, I found a small spot near some bushes where nobody was, I paused the GPS, and took a break. My anxiety was consuming me. At this point, I was no longer running yet my heart was racing even faster.

“I’m so far from the car.” I thought.

It seemed like miles and miles of darkness between me and safety. How was I going to get back? The cold started to pass through my clothes, more sensory overload. I began to hyperventilate.

1. I called for help

I pulled out my phone and texted my Thunder Buddies. It just said that I had a bad anxiety attack in the middle of my long run. They knew what that meant, so they didn’t need any more details. Immediately I had replies of support. Each Thunder Buddy was cheering for me and praying hard for me.

Next, I texted my dear friend and accountability partner. He knew I had a run to complete today and was already praying for me. Just as fast as the others, I had a response. He was cheering me on too. My phone was starting to blow up now, and I was no longer alone.

Depression and anxiety often isolate us. We have people in our lives who care and who want to help us. They just need to know what’s going on sometimes. It’s okay to send up a flare to the right people and ask for help. I sounded the “Adam Alarm” and the crew that consistently holds me together responded admirably.

2. I looked at reality, not emotions

At this point, the anxiety had swallowed me up, and I had a hard time trying to see what was factual and what wasn’t. Still, I made the effort to remind myself of what was, in fact, real. I wasn’t a failure. I was halfway through my longest run in months. I hadn’t failed yet. In fact, the only failed run is the one I don’t do. So there was no way I was a failure. I had to remember that.

3. I embraced the suck

At this point quitting wasn’t an option. First, I had my team cheering for me so I couldn’t let them down. Second, I reminded myself that I was at the halfway point on an out-and-back run. That meant the only way to make this pain stop was to start running again and not stop until I got back to my car.

So I accepted where I was at, and accepted what I had to do. It didn’t make the anxiety attack calm down at all. But it sure made my options simpler. A lot of times we feel overwhelmed by our anxiety, and we don’t know what to do. We don’t know where to start and then we just get more anxious about that and it becomes this crappy cycle.

Accepting where I was at and that I only had one option made the road back to safety clearer. At that point it no longer mattered how bad my anxiety was or how many people were on the trail. I only had one road back to my car so I might as well accept it.

4. I asked for strength to get it done

Once I accepted where I was at, and that there was only one option, I asked God for help in getting through it. I asked him for strength to get the job done. I pray a lot on my runs. It’s a time to meditate and talk with my creator. But, when I’m building miles like I am now, it often reminds me of how much farther there is to go and how much I still need God to carry me through life. When a muscle starts to sting or my joints grind, I’ll pray and ask God to take care of it. I’ll then move on to something else in my brain. More often than not, the pain goes away after a tenth of a mile or so.

But, on days like today, I need all the strength I can muster. My team was already praying for me at this point and so I directed my attention to God for strength too. I knew the road between me and the finish line (my car) was going to be bad. I knew the anxiety attack was going to make it a painful mess, and I knew all those freaking kids had probably hit their turnaround by now, and so I would have to pass them all again. So I prayed hard for the strength I would need to finish the job.

5. I started back up

So, with a phone full of encouraging texts, a team praying, and God running next to me, I un-paused my GPS, put one foot in front of the other, and I started back toward the finish line.

Let this be a lesson: Always start back up.

Life will give you overwhelming obstacles both outside and inside your brain. It’s going to be a life of restarts for you so get used to it. Every moment is an opportunity to restart something you thought was finished. I was only halfway to my goal for the day, so I had to start back up.

6. I kept moving forward

I ran for thirty-seconds, and my muscles started to dry up again. My anxiety attack was still keeping the blood from my legs. I stumbled a little before reluctantly reducing my speed to a fast walk. I caught my breath, said another prayer, and started running again. I pointed my head downward and looked toward the ground. I didn’t need to see the crowd or the distance in front of me. I just needed to keep moving forward despite it all.

‘Keep moving forward‘ is the theme of this community and for good reason. A race, a run, a job, a relationship, your life may not look how you wanted it to look. It may be nothing like you expected. It may hurt and be uncomfortable, but you have to keep moving forward no matter what. It always gets better on the other side, so you can’t quit, you just have to keep going.

I put everything I could out of my mind and just focused on putting one foot in front of the other. I focused on moving forward.

7. I used positive self-talk

The entire run back I reminded myself of how strong I was. I remembered all the bad workouts I had overcome in my life. I remembered my streak and all I had accomplished. I psyched myself up and refused to let my anxiety distract me from the awesomeness that is ME.

When I passed a crowd I just reminded myself that they weren’t paying attention to me.

“Who cares if they were anyway?” I said to myself.

It was a beautiful day, and I was doing what I love. I was building miles for a race and doing what I wanted to do with my time, so there was no reason to be upset. I reminded myself that a bad run was still a good run because I was training. As long as I got the miles under my feet I would be successful.

You have to stay positive. Negative self-talk can make your depression and anxiety so much worse. I’ve always said that I refuse to let depression make me a negative person. I still want optimism and hope for myself despite my illness.

8. I set short ‘easy’ benchmarks

I picked a point on the horizon that didn’t seem too far away and then I committed to running to that point. Sometimes it was a tree or a light pole; it didn’t matter what it was. I’d pick the spot, put my head down and then push to get to that point.

Our finish lines seem too overwhelmingly far away for us. It’s hard to make the right decision in the present because our future is too distant. We have to set closer goals to help propel us to the finish line in our lives.

Pick a small achievable benchmark on the road to your big goal then put all your energy and effort toward getting to that milestone. You’ll find that doing this will ultimately get you closer to that big dream.

9. I celebrated achieving my benchmarks

So what do you do when you finally get to that mini-finish line, that benchmark? You celebrate it. I thanked God for getting me to each milestone, and I also cheered for myself. Hey, my team was cheering for me, why shouldn’t I cheer too?

Celebrate the mini-wins in your life. Yeah, it may not be the ultimate goal you want, but whenever you reach a benchmark despite your depression or anxiety, it is cause for celebration.

10. I stopped thinking about the fear

Okay, this is way easier said than done so let me be straightforward. When you have an anxiety attack, you’re not going to be able to stop thinking about the fear right away. My entire run, I had the anxiety attack. At no point did it subside. But I meditated through it while running. By that, I mean that I would breathe through it and try to think of other things. When my anxiety would scream and get my attention again, I calmly just redirected my focus to something else.

I call this meditating away from my anxiety. Think of it like trying to watch TV and a kid screams. You have to redirect your focus back to the TV after that distraction. That’s pretty much what I’m talking about here. So I would think about anything but the anxiety and the fear. Whenever I got distracted by the attack, I would then just redirect my focus away from it.

I will say that it’s a futile effort sometimes, but it does help you get between benchmarks despite your anxiety attack. Try it next time.

11. I replaced the fear

I already wrote about how positive self-talk helped me. Here’s another thing to try the next time your anxiety slows you down. Replace the fear with a positive affirmation. Just like replacing a bad habit with a good one is the best way to get rid of poor habits, replacing a bad thought with a good one can shove those negative messages right out of your brain.

Every time I thought about how far I still had to go, every time another crowd of kids made my heart beat out of my chest, I would quickly change the subject and think of something positive about myself.

For example, my anxiety would go, “Holy crap the world is coming to an end, and you’re still too far from your car!”

I would reply, “I’m strong enough to handle this mileage, and have already gone over halfway, so there’s not much left in the big picture. But it doesn’t matter because I’m good at this, and I’ve done tough runs before.”

Replace every negative thought with a realistic positive one and you’re sure to drastically change your outlook on life.

12. I never gave up

That attack never went away until I got back to my car and headed for home. My anxiety didn’t quit, but guess what, neither did I.

You may not be able to get rid of the anxiety attack, but the key is never to let your mental illness keep you from your goals. You have dreams, desires, and a purpose but anxiety and depression are obstacles that try and stop you from achieving your objectives.

So, even at the moment of your attack, fight for every inch and figure out how you can get through it because your goals still matter. Don’t shut down and quit just because it gets ugly. That’s what ‘keep moving forward’ is all about. If it looks bad, unpleasant, or painful, then fine. Keep going. Don’t let your mental illness stop you.

Ultimately you outrun your anxiety by not giving up. Some days you beat back your anxiety and some days you just have to run with it. But the key is to keep going and never to give up. Does it hurt? Yes, it does. But nothing is more painful than the regret of quitting. That’s way more permanent than any pain you currently feel.

That was a bad run. I would say it was one of my worst ever, but I’m strong, and I powered through it. Why, because we don’t quit at Sad Runner. Life may hurt us, but we don’t give up. We keep moving forward.

Adam Weitz
Adam Weitz

Adam Weitz is a multi-discipline designer, business owner, and founder of Sad Runner. He is passionate about encouraging people with depression and works through Sad Runner to positively impact their lives.