As I lace up my shoes, a nagging voice in the back of my head reminds me of how busy I am. I am thinking about project deadlines and meetings I have in the afternoon. This same voice tells me that I really don’t feel like walking out the door and going for a jog. After all, I really don’t have time for this today and it’s too hot outside to run. Fortunately, I recognize this voice and I know that when I step outside the voice will grow quieter. As I open the door and breathe in the fresh air, something happens. It’s like turning down the volume on the craziness going on in my head, and readjusting my attention to my surroundings. I can feel my mood lift as I notice the warmth of the air and the bright sunlight. Sure, it’s not perfect running weather, but it feels good to step outside, leaving my worries in the house as I close the door. I turn on my music and the beat takes me further away from the morning rush. As I jog out of my neighborhood, I notice how my legs feel, and how the warm pavement under my shoes presses against the soles of my feet. I notice the sound of wind blowing through the leaves and the birds chirping high in the trees. My breathing changes as I pull oxygen from deeper in my lungs and my whole body begins to warm up.
Over the next few miles, my thoughts may take me back to the busyness of life. However, it’s as if everything has slowed down for me. I can think with better clarity as if I am looking down at my day from above. I can organize my thoughts better. Some days, my thoughts take me into deep contemplation, other days I just enjoy the run and listen to the music.
Running is therapy for me and we can look at the impact it has on my brain (specifically, the basal ganglia) for some possible answers why. According to Daniel G Amen, M.D. in the book, Change your brain, change your life, “excessive basal ganglia activity resets the body’s idle to a revved-up level and can make people feel anxious, nervous, tense, and pessimistic”. Dr. Amen describes a few techniques to set your basal ganglia to a relaxed, healthy level. Three of these techniques are using guided imagery (a relaxation exercise), practicing diaphragmatic breathing exercises, and through meditation. These techniques all involve shifting attention to new senses, rhythmic motions and breathing, and relaxing (or refocusing) your mind. Similarly, when clients come into counseling for anxiety or anger, it often makes sense to begin with a mindfulness exercise to relax and lower the volume of the noise in our heads. Simple relaxation activities literally heal the brain!
One of the traps we experience when we feel down or stressed, is waiting to be in the mood to do something therapeutic. We think that once we feel like going for a jog, then we’ll go and feel better. This results in never grabbing those running shoes. That’s why something that sounds so simple (doing something therapeutic for me), is in fact quite difficult for many of us to do! We listen to the negative thoughts in our head that tell us we’re too busy, or too tired to do something for me. But it’s the activity that makes us feel better, lifts our mood, and gives us more clarity. Whether it’s the mindfulness of yoga, the peacefulness of prayer, or the endorphins from exercise we all need a dose of therapy regularly.
So what do you find therapeutic? What do you do to reset your basal ganglia (okay, that’s just fun to say). Whether you walk, read, pray, play music, dance, write in a journal, call a friend, or go for a jog, find activities that work for you. If you are feeling down or anxious, now is the time to start. If you don’t know where to begin, try out a couple of these simple relaxation techniques. I’m not trying to suggest that this is the answer to all of the stress in our lives. The human brain is complex beyond our understanding in many ways. But I promise you that a little self-therapy can only help you feel like YOU. Ask for help if you need help, and find YOUR therapy!!
Licensed Professional Counselor Intern
Under Supervision of Tiffany Smith LPC-S, LMFT-S, NCC