How Trail Running Helps Me Beat Back Social Anxiety Disorder

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Put me in a room, say for a meeting or a dinner party, and I will absolutely freak out. It won’t matter that the room is nice and cool and that everyone is friendly, I will inevitably start sweating and have a panic attack. It’s unavoidable.

That is, unless I went for a run that day. Then I might be saved.

See, I struggle with social anxiety disorder, and it’s brutal. Infinitely more brutal and relentless than any 100-miler could ever be. There is no cutoff. No one ever pulls you from the course and ends the pain. You can’t DNF. (Well you can, but not without hurting the ones you love.) You must suffer on if you want to function in the modern world, and the race goes on forever.

The only relief is on the trails, where the contrast with the rest of my day is laughable. In a meeting I will agonize to the point of insanity over how to excuse myself to use the restroom, but with my running buddies I have absolutely no qualms about making them all wait while I dip into the woods.

In the real world, I hate meeting new people and shaking their hands. It’s terrifying, and my hands are constantly clammy. (Actually, “clammy” isn’t quite the right word; for the other person, it’s more like trying to grip a slippery eel. Gross, right?) I’ve been trying forever to figure out how to make fist bumping the de facto greeting of corporate America, but I don’t think it’s going to take. The handshake’s grip is just too tight.

But oh how I love the trails, where I can meet new people like a normal person. It’s amazing how relieved I feel to have a reasonable explanation for why my hands are soaked in sweat, or why my heart is racing—it’ll be from the 1,000-foot climb I just did or the seven-minute-mile pace I was pushing, and not from the social anxiety. On the trails, I don’t stress about making a good first impression because I know my running can speak for itself, and besides, everyone is dirty and covered in sweat anyway.

Courtesy of the author

The trails are my safe haven where for a couple hours—or if I’m lucky, seven or eight—I can feel like a normal human who’s not terrified of the world. And the beauty of it is that if I happen to run hard enough, if I happen to push myself to the point of exhaustion, I won’t have enough energy left over to be anxious the rest of the day. I will have extinguished the disorder, at least for the time being, and I just might be able to interact with other people without wanting to die.

And that’s why I run in the woods. It’s not really an option for me, but a requirement. I have to run myself into oblivion just so that I can get through the rest of my day—so that I can suppress the anxiety long enough to be able to go to the grocery store and not have a heart attack when the checkout lady asks me how I’m doing. It’s crossed my mind that I could just go on meds, but for some reason I have it in my head that I don’t want to become “addicted”—well, addicted to anything besides running.

Although not a cure, trail running is the best solution I’ve found for dealing with this frustrating disorder. I fear what will happen if I ever get hurt and have to stop running, even for a week. It would be terrible and debilitating and I’d likely try to avoid everyone.

For now, though, while I’m at least physically healthy, I’m going to continue using my favorite crutch. So if you happen to run into me in the woods or at a race please do come up and say “hi.” It’ll be one of the few times I won’t be scared of you and might actually come off as being normal. I really do enjoy meeting other people, especially others runners.

Just don’t be surprised if I go for the fist bump instead of a handshake.

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