Professional, collegiate, occasional and hobbyist runners take to the track or pound the pavement for different reasons. Physical fitness and cardiovascular and mental health are among the top arguments for running. Still, one facet of the cognitive benefits has proven to be particularly interesting and may help shape the future for thousands—if not millions—of people. We’re talking about the power that running has to help assuage and dissipate the debilitating symptoms of PTSD and trauma.
According to one study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, exercises like running can help lessen the severity of PTSD symptoms. The theory behind this particular study was based on a specific brain protein called a brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. People with PTSD generally have lower levels of this protein, which is used to adapt to or recover from stress. The study showed that regular bouts of intense exercise, like running, helped increase the amounts of BDNF in the brain, both short-term and over time.
It may come as no surprise to those who live to chase that “runner’s high,” a phenomenon that is extremely common and produces short-lived feelings of euphoria after intense exercise. Not only do we feel great during and right after a solid run, but we tend to be at our best when we’re completing runs regularly.
However, newer studies focus on how running can be used to almost “rewire” the brain and its response to trauma. People suffering from PTSD or panic attacks tend to experience hyperarousal, a condition in which the body feels threatened and is highly alert. Hyperarousal is usually accompanied by symptoms like rapid heartbeat, heavy breathing, sweating and a powerful sense of agitation or fear of one’s safety. Do those physical symptoms—rapid heartbeat, heavy breathing and sweating—sound familiar in another context?
Running draws out the same physical responses as panic disorders or PTSD often do. In theory, repeated exposure to those physical symptoms, without the psychological or emotional responses, could help the brain learn to interpret symptoms differently.
True to theory, a study conducted by Scott Hayes, Ph.D. and published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, revealed that PTSD sufferers who engaged in vigorous-intensity exercise (like running) had fewer hyperarousal symptoms associated with PTSD. Over time, Hayes indicated, the brain learns that arousal cues are not necessarily catastrophic and are not always linked to a traumatic event.
Furthermore, Hayes added that “aerobic exercise can positively impact brain structure and function in some of the same brain regions associated with PTSD.” This suggests that intense exercise like running can not only help rewire the brain but may also help repair it, tying into the study that links the presence of the BDNF protein to brain repair.
In essence, running can deliver a double dose of beneficial effects to those suffering from PTSD. In both of these mentioned studies, the application of running and other intense exercise was used in addition to therapy and other recommended measures, and not on its own or in place of necessary therapies.
If you, or someone you love suffers from PTSD or other panic disorders, making regular runs part of your everyday therapeutic measures may be a worthwhile idea. Incorporating physical exercise with therapy is a great way to help integrate the mind and body in the best way possible.
Running has a remarkable effect on our psyche that can be hard to explain. When we’re running, we don’t have to think about anything else, almost as if our worries and anxieties have been left behind as we closed the door on our way out.
The cathartic experience of prolonged, intense runs, combined with the brain rewiring therapeutic potential of the practice, carries the promise of immediate and long-term relief to some of the most distressing facets of psychological disorders like PTSD. Used in combination with therapy, running could be the answer many PTSD sufferers have been looking for, and it’s been right under our noses (and our feet) all along.