Running to escape stress? Why it can have negative effects

A woman in a dress and sunglasses walks through a field covered in square shapes marked with tapeShare on Pinterest
New research explains the psychological reasons why running can become addictive. Image credit: AJ Schokora/Stocksy.
  • A new study examines the role of escape, a known powerful motivation, in exercise addiction.
  • The study reveals that when people run away, rather than towards something, they are more likely to feel bad about their lives.
  • These individuals are at increased risk of developing an exercise addiction or addiction.

When it comes to running for entertainment or exercise, a person’s motivation may be a critical factor in whether or not they develop exercise addiction, according to a new study.

The study explores the role of escapism in running and finds that people who use activity to escape life’s troubles are more likely to develop an unhealthy exercise addiction.

Escapism as a powerful motivator has been explored in other contexts dating back to 1990s. A new study now aims to fill a research gap by examining whether or not escapism plays a role in running, and what that role might be.

The research team, led by Dr. Frode Stenseng from the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology, recruited 227 recreational runners through social media sites.

The participants were evenly split in terms of gender, and their running habits and styles varied. Anyone declaring that they run regularly received a study questionnaire to fill out.

A questionnaire assessed the role of escape in each participant’s running, the degree to which they were or were not dependent on this form of exercise, and their level of overall satisfaction with life.

The study appears in Frontiers of psychology.

While running and exercise in general are known to be beneficial to health, some people become exercise addictas described in a 2011 study led by a psychotherapist Dr. Marilyn Freimuth.

A 1997 study found that about 25% of recreational runners become activity addicted and about 50% of marathon runners feel sport addicted.

A study 2021 lists some signs of exercise addiction in athletes:

  • undertaking exaggerated volumes of exercise
  • lack of control over the degree of participation in the form of exercise they have chosen
  • experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop exercising
  • and having conflicts with family and friends about exercise.

“Escape” is defined as “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine.”

But not all escapes are the same. Dr. Stenseng said Medical News Today that he and his collaborators have been exploring the phenomenon of escapism for more than 10 years and:

“We have repeatedly found that escape comes in two forms: one of facilitating positive emotions by engaging in the activity (self-expanding), and one of suppressing thoughts and emotions. disruptive through activity (self-suppression).”

“Running is a very popular activity,” Dr. Stenseng said, “that can be quite engrossing, so we wanted to test whether we found that escapist dualism in running as well.”

The study found that self-expanding escape was associated with a positive sense of well-being, while self-suppressive escape was linked to a poor sense of well-being.

Dr. Freimuth, who was not involved in the current study, agrees with the authors’ notion that escape is of two types, saying that “[d]Distinguishing between two types of motivation, one more pleasant and the other escapist, is really interesting.

She noted that self-suppressive escapism is often associated with addiction to substances or activities.

The study suggests that self-suppressive escapism promotes negative feelings about one’s life, which can then escalate into an even greater addiction to exercise.

“If you have limited ways to escape/avoid feelings,” Dr. Freimuth said, “and life circumstances or your internal world continue to elicit bad feelings, then the behavior may continue to increase in frequency, so that some adverse effects occur, such as ignoring a responsibility, increasing exercise leading to injury, etc.

DTM asked Dr. Stenseng how a person can identify their own motivation to run, particularly if self-expanding or suppressive escape is at play.

He replied that “a good question to ask yourself is: Do I feel refreshed or ashamed after exercising?”

“When you run in a self-suppressing state of mind, you tend to feel ashamed afterwards, not in a high mood state,” Dr. Stenseng explained.

Whereas exercise addiction can be a response to serious life problems, overcoming it means coping with those problems as best you can.

“Anytime a person uses a substance or behavior to escape something in their life,” Dr. Freimuth said, “they need to identify the fear, the stressthem anxiety, etc., and begin to question its reality for them now. And then take steps to reduce it.

In situations where a person is trying to deal with intractable issues such as grief or insurmountable obstacles, Dr. Freimuth suggested, “[p]perhaps the most effective method is to learn to tolerate uncomfortable sensations without having to do anything.

Leave a Comment