Many runners will admit to experiencing lowered stress following a long run. Someone might be at a 9.5 on a 1-10 stress scale because overwhelming deadlines are unavoidably approaching, a difficult failure in life just took place, and an important relationship seems fractured beyond repair. After the long run that initial 9.5 drops to a 5 or 6. Those deadlines appear manageable, the failure is less painful, and a remedy for the strained relationship presents itself. Why? The first paragraph of this blog and the accompanying articles explain the newest research on what is happening biologically/neurologically between our ears. But these biological and chemical processes cause emotional reactions or feelings to take place. Imagine a runner is crossing the boundary between miles 6 and 7. Depending on the season, the initial heat or cold which was uncomfortable in mile 1 is long gone. The overall suffering in mile 2 has been replaced with a feeling of power and strength that comes with a challenging pace. Attention has shifted its lens from focusing on pain in one's in knees, feet, or a side cramp to focusing on a steady breath, a pounding heart, or flexing muscles. Simply put, the runner moves his/her attention away from pain to pride. With pride comes a slight surge of confidence. The runner now feels the rapidly approaching hill is no longer a source of impending agony, it is now a surmountable challenge. And when atop the hill, there is another surge of confidence. The neurochemical processes that take place in the long distance runner’s brain creates a perfect opportunity for confidence building. However, on a strictly emotional level, I feel that running makes one feel strength and power in the present moment. This is why, following a long run, overwhelming deadlines feel manageable, a recent failure feels less painful, and a solution/approach for that fractured relationship presents itself. All of life’s problems are magically transformed within the runner’s head. Well, maybe not magic, rather, in psychology we call this “reframing.” The perspective from which those anxieties are now viewed is different and those anxieties are subsequently less stressful, they have less power over the runner.
I’d like to take this concept one step further. I remember feeling similar experiences in grad school on those days in which I taught from 8:00-3:30, sat through two classes from 4:30-10:15, and then stayed in the library until midnight. It could have been easy to focus my attention on how awful and grueling those days were. Instead I consciously made an effort to find the pride in the suffering. As a result 6 years of grad school, a full-time, and a part-time job was far less agonizing, and more often it provided the setting for confidence building. I used the experience of the long distance runner and graduate student as a platform to describe this concept, but it can easily be applied to any pursuit of a personal passion. I’ve heard the same concept described by musicians, parents, coaches, business people, athletes… There are parts of all those passionate pursuits that are hard and cause suffering. Aspiring musicians become frustrated with struggling through a difficult chord progression, parents feel annoyed with their children’s stubbornness, coaches become worried about recruits who are on the fence, business people get frustrated with tedious details of a huge deal, and athletes feel the pain of off-season training. The way one chooses how to perceive these agonizing parts of the journey will greatly impact the overall experience, thus having a direct impact of the potential success or lack thereof. Simply put, how we decide to perceive the journey impacts the experience of the journey, it impacts life.