Why You Shouldn’t Run To Escape Negative Feelings, According to New Research
Escapism, defined by Merriam-Webster as a “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine,” can take many forms. Some people may binge television shows or play video games to escape the humdrum of everyday life. Recently, researchers studied the downside of using a commonly accepted healthy activity as a means of escape: exercise.
Running to escape.
A new study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that using running as a way to suppress troublesome thoughts or emotions could have negative impacts on well-being1.
While other escapism outlets, like video games, have been studied before, Norway-based researchers found that there wasn’t existing research on the experiences of runners who use the activity as a way to distract themselves from other aspects of their lives.
They studied a group of 227 recreational runners, whom they found through social media, and their relationship to the activity, concluding that some motivations for running may have negative side effects1.
Not all running motivations are created equal.
For this study, researchers looked at two motivations for escapism in running: self-expansion and self-suppression.
They asked the study’s participants to weigh in on various perspectives by selecting where they fall on a five-point scale from “totally disagree” to “totally agree.” Examples included “When I am running… I try to learn new things about myself” and “I open up for experiences that enrich my life.” They also included “When I am running… I try to forget the difficult things in my life” and “I try to suppress my problems.”
Runners motivated by self-expansion, who run because they want to promote positive emotions, would likely agree with the first two examples, while runners motivated by self-suppression, who run because they want to “prevent, or suppress, troublesome thoughts or emotions,” would likely agree with the last two examples.
The study found that those motivated by self-expansion were more likely to feel positive emotions during their runs and receive more long-term benefits after they finished running. They were also more likely to settle into a “flow state” during their runs, which the study defines as transcending “the demands of the activity, which leads to intense cognitive focus, alertness, and a feeling of mastery and joy.”
Meanwhile, runners motivated by self-suppression, who ran to distract themselves from uncomfortable thoughts, future challenges, or past upsetting experiences, were found to have fewer positive effects from the activity.
“Individuals become triggered to suppress and/or alleviate [negative emotions], and a common response is to dim these troublesome thoughts by pursuing experiences that may outshine them, at least momentarily,” researchers said in the study.
But the study found that suppressing negative emotions actually “dampens” positive ones, too. The researchers noticed that this sort of self-suppression can relate to lower self-control, procrastination, and worse well-being overall.
How to have a healthier run.
Exercise—no matter your motivation for it—can have undeniable benefits for your mood. It increases oxygen in your brain2, which can help manage anxiety and depression. Endorphins released during aerobic exercise help you feel positive and upbeat3, while other chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, linger after workouts to help keep your mood up well after you’ve finished moving. And this new research suggests that running while in a more positive mindset can be even more beneficial.
If you want to spend your runs and exercise sessions feeling your best, the first step is addressing the stressful thoughts and emotions in your life. Here are a few more science-backed ways to deal with those stressors:
- Calm your nervous system: You can train your nervous system to react better to stress by incorporating breathwork, guided meditation, or quick yoga flows into your routine.
- Try a supplement: The right supplements can help regulate stress, combat feelings of anxiousness, and promote a better mood. Vetted supplements containing ingredients like hemp oil, ashwagandha extract, and lavender oil can help make you more stress-resilient. Here are a few options to look into for relief.
- Be present: One way to combat escapism is to ground yourself in the present moment, not by pushing away your negative emotions but by greeting them. Simply acknowledging recurring negative thoughts can help—and challenging them helps even more. You might try scheduling “worry time,” when you lay out all your worries within an allotted time period and face them head-on, in order to stay present throughout the rest of your day.
It’s tempting to want to suppress negative feelings and distract yourself with something more fun—especially if that fun activity is also a healthy one. But new research reveals a downside of using running as a means of escaping negative emotions. You might get even more benefits from exercise if you take the time to process these emotions before lacing up your sneakers.
Francesca Bond is a freelance writer, newspaper reporter, and film photographer. She writes about fashion and culture in her newsletter, things i probably wrote in caffe aroma. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from SUNY Buffalo State and lives in Buffalo, New York.