How often has someone told you they craved a jog to clear their head after a long day? I certainly run to combat stress, and there’s a reason many of us tie up our sneakers, blast music, and work up a sweat as our heart rate soars.
When running, the body releases endorphins which reduce stress and can lead to that “runner’s high,” or the joyful post-exercise state that improves mood. Over time, running can also bolster focus and memory, and studies trumpet exercise as a protection against physical and mental illness and the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
But a new study published Wednesday in Frontiers in Psychology explores how using running to get “lost” and suppress negative emotions can lead to exercise dependence and a diminished sense of overall well-being.
Escapism, defined in the study as “a habitual diversion of the mind…as an escape of reality or routine,” can improve our ability to manage emotions. Most people use some escapism every day, whether streaming a show, playing a game, listening to a song, or exercising. It can be explorative and serve as a way to gain a deeper, more nuanced perspective on a problem. It can also enhance motivation.
However, it’s twofold. Dr. Frode Stenseng, an author of the study and psychology professor from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, says to watch out for escapism’s darker side: using activity to suppress negative emotions and thoughts, in this case literally and figuratively running away from reality.
“You do something that is good for your physical health, but it actually destroys your mental health,” he tells Fortune. “You’re numbing your emotions.”
Self-suppression vs. self-expansion
Using running as an escape is not inherently fraught, but “the mindset of your escapism is more important than the activity itself,” Stenseng says. “You have to be aware of the kind of emotion regulation strategies you bring into your activity,” and whether you are engaging in escapism for self-suppression or for self-expansion.
When running, if you’re aware of your surroundings and open to feeling however you may, you’re more likely geared to self-expansion. You’re more likely in self-suppression mode when running and using all your brain energy to avoid thoughts about negative emotions.
In the study of nearly 230 runners of all levels, participants filled out questionnaires related to their motives behind…