On running and emotions

Friday, April 20, 2012

I started to notice a pattern some time ago. I'd work hard all day, concentrating on accomplishing tasks and getting things done. In the evening I'd go running, with the intention of working a bit more later that night. After running, eating dinner, showering, etc., I'd sit back down to finish up work for the day.

But there was one big problem. When I sat down to work, I couldn't. I'd try to concentrate, but I'd find myself distracted and unable to focus on any given task. I'd find myself checking email, looking at Facebook, checking Twitter, all things detrimental to productivity. Sometimes I was just physically exhausted, tired from the day and the physical exercise. Usually though this was only the case when I'd first start running after some significant hiatus. After my body is back in shape and I'm used to the pattern of running, the physical exhaustion isn't as bad.

Instead, I started to notice something else going on. I began paying a lot more attention to how I felt when I was in this funk. I noticed that I was much calmer than normal. I noticed that I felt a certain longing. In fact, I noticed that I was altogether much much more emotional than normal. I found a hidden motivation behind checking email, Twitter, and Facebook. It wasn't so much the distraction I was craving. I was craving emotional connection. I was craving a desire to feel connected to others.

After I go for a run, I feel lonely.

This post-run distraction and longing has actually prevented me from running for significant periods of time. When I'm extremely busy with work, it becomes really difficult to decide to go running because I know after the run I likely won't be able to pick up where I left off. This all kind of sucks. I mean running is an exceedingly good and healthy activity. It should lead to improvements in cognitive function and probably concentration as well. But here I was, stuck in this cycle that made it pretty difficult to commit to it, for fear of the loss in productivity, and just as much, fear of the loneliness.

I tend to be a pretty goal-oriented, cognito-centric person. My inner mental life is often dominated by logic puzzles, working through this scenario or that to optimize the solution. No doubt this sort of mental capacity is a skill, and a good one to have. But I tend to use this same methodology for most things by default, including relationships. It's easy for me to miss obvious social queues because I'm so engrossed in this sort of thinking. It's also easy for me to feel awkward in social situations because I'm always analyzing and optimizing. I get stuck in thought cycles, unable to see anything outside them. I feel this heavy cognitive orientation causes me to be out of touch with my emotions most of the time. I can cognize my emotions, think about and analyze them, name them and tell you where they come from... but I struggle to just be with my emotions, to just feel.

All sorts of things are capable of opening me up emotionally, forcing me to feel things, to abandon the logic puzzles and just be with emotions. Most, however, happen at unpredictable times in unpredictable ways.
I've found running to be a predictable way of opening me up emotionally.

A wise person once told me that the primary vector for accessing our emotions is through our bodies. Something about pushing my body and forcing it to move over the earth for long periods of time beats back my mental fixations, forces to the background my strong cognito-centric orientation. This means that it's hard to sit down and work, to summon back that mental focus that's so native to me most hours of the day. This is not a bad thing. This is actually very very good. It makes me more balanced. It opens me up to parts of myself that are forced to the background most of the time. It causes me to consider things from new perspectives. And it makes me crave connection.

After coming to these conclusions from iterating and witnessing my inner experience, I've realized I need to approach these emotional openings differently. Knowing I'm likely to feel this way after running means that what I do after running changes. If I sit down and try to force my way through my inability to focus, going about things the way I ordinarily do, I'll not only be frustrated but will have squandered a great opportunity. I've realized that I actually need to take advantages of these periods, to do things that make me feel connected. I'm just beginning to navigate these waters, but I've found that I'm compelled and willing to do things I don't ordinary do. I've started calling friends and family, just to talk. I've realized that I can do focused work so long as that work is directly connected to my emotions. I can write about how I'm feeling (this post is fueled by post-run emotion-juice). I can work on projects whose primary purpose is to help others. I can do more creative work, work grounded and inspired by emotional states. And in some cases, I can work on side projects that ordinarily get repeatedly shoved to the background as I can't justify working on them when this or that is not complete yet.

I'm sure this phenomena is caused by exercise generally, but in time, I plan to make the argument that there are certain attributes of running in particular that catalyze this sort of emotional opening. For now, I hope to keep running as a deliberate effort to engender more balance in my life, and keep experimenting with what capabilities open up in these post-run states. The really interesting part of this to me is that it completely reframes running as important for psychological and emotional health, not the first thing you think of when you think of reasons to run.

So, what about you? Could you use a bit more emotional balance in your life? Ever found running to have this effect on you?

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