How Running Helped Me Overcome Grief from a Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective
Today, I registered for the Naperville Half Marathon. This might not seem like a big deal, but one year ago I could barely run one mile. On my 38th birthday last fall, I dared myself to run for ten minutes at the gym. I barely made it. Slowly, I increased to two miles a few times a week. One day I ran over three miles for the first time in my life. I kept running four to five days per week. I loved the feeling of accomplishment, the rush of endorphins, and how the act of running seemed to minimize the stress of everyday life. When I’m running, the only thing that matters is running. There is only the synchronized movement of my arms and legs, the rhythm of my breath, the beats from my headphones.
I was already infatuated with running early last winter when my father passed away. After the acute grief passed, I was able to put my running shoes back on. I ran almost every day for three months. Running helped to moderate the grief I was feeling for about a day at a time. I didn’t always want to run; but, the pain of running was less than the painful emotions I was feeling about my father’s passing. This is when I fell head over heels for running. By using my body to control my mind, I was able to feel the grief but not be overburdened by it.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, each energetic organ system is associated with an emotion. The Lungs are associated with grief, the Spleen with worry, the Heart with Joy, the Kidneys with Fear, and the Liver with Anger. As a Licensed Acupuncturist, I understood that running, an activity that activates the Lungs, could also help to dissipate Grief. It was with this in mind that I embarked on my daily running journey. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, running is also an activity that moves qi. When qi is stagnant, people may feel depressed or angry. The most common Oriental Medicine diagnosis that results from stagnant qi is called Liver Qi Stagnation. Endurance exercise exerts an anti-depressant effect by resolving qi stagnation. Other ways to resolve stagnant qi are with acupuncture and traditional Chinese herbal formulas such as Xiao Yao San (Free and Easy Wanderer).
From a Western perspective, endurance exercise is also known to have an anti-depressant effect. It is well known that running can boost endorphins and lead to a “runner’s high.” Other mechanisms that may lead to the mood-boosting effects of running are upregulation of the endocannabinoid system and increased Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) production. BDNF is involved in new neuron growth and maintenance of existing neurons. Another lesser-known mechanism has to do with a tryptophan pathway. In the presence of stress without exercise, tryptophan may be converted to kynurenine which is converted to quinolinic acid. Quinolinic acid is a neurotoxin which may be involved with depression. When a person is stressed and they exercise, the tryptophan instead converts to serotonin which converts to kynurenic acid. Kynurenic acid is neuroprotective and may be partially responsible for the mood-boosting effects of exercise.
Now that the grief has lessened, I find I can use running as a way to deal with periods of heightened stress. If I am worried or ruminating, I go for a long run. Whatever issues I think I have fade into the distance as my feet hit the ground repetitively. By the time the run is over, all I can think about is replenishing fluids and calories lost on the run. Once I’ve recovered, I feel empowered. Surely, If I survived that run, I can also survive life’s daily stressors.
This post was first featured in the Elephant Journal publication