Runner's High Feeding My Addiction or Helping Recovery? –
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Runner's High Feeding My Addiction or Helping Recovery?

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Injuries suck. Worse than that, not being able to run sucks. Before you cut me off, I promise I am not going to waste your time reading my complaints through toxic word vomit. This is more about a lesson in balance and moderation, valuable to any person in recovery. Some people choose running for health benefits, mental health equilibrium, or a temporary escape. An addict in recovery may choose running to chase a runner’s high.

While driving to work today, I passed runners on the streets and sidewalks I generally run on. I cannot help but feel a twinge of jealousy, as if I am missing out on something. Perhaps I am missing out. I am missing out the chill of the winter air that reminds me I can feel again. I am missing out on the voices in head that tell me, “Just a few more miles!  Don’t stop now!” I am missing out on the satisfaction I get from an exhausted yet exhilarated body after completing a long run. I am missing out on the burn in my lungs and legs as I press toward breaking a new goal. I am missing out on the welcomed rush of endorphins. I am missing out on my chance to obtain the runner’s high. For me, this is the ultimate FOMO (fear of missing out).

Running may not sound like much fun to you, but there is magic in the misery. To help you better understand the magic in the misery, I will give you a brief rundown of what is happening in our brains while engaging in vigorous aerobic exercise, such as running. The brain gives birth to new neurons through vigorous aerobic exercise. New neurons?  As a recovering addict, I certainly welcome all the help I can get in the neuron department! And guess where these new cells are formed? In the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the area in the brain in associated with learning and memory. I don’t know about you, but my learning and memory was not exactly “on point” in the early stages of my recovery. Let’s face it, folks, I fried a lot of brain cells during my drug binges and alcohol abuse. Another piece of the magic happens in the frontal lobe where our focus, concentration, and emotion regulation happens. I’d dare say this is good news for a person in life-long recovery, but my favorite part of the magical misery happens when I obtain the elusive “runner’s high.”  

So, what is a runner’s high? Let me start my saying it is legal, and it cannot be bought. A runner’s high doesn’t come in a baggie, pill, bottle, or syringe.  A runner’s high comes from endorphins, which are the brain’s feel-good chemicals and a natural pain killer. Our brains have the ability to produce chemicals that act a lot like morphine, the human body’s own home-grown opiate. The greater the endorphin surge, the more euphoric the runner’s high. The first time I experienced a runner’s high, I remember thinking, “This is it!” There was no mistaking that almost dizzy sensation that started in my head as my mind went blank and warmth washed over my body. I felt numb - every ache my feet and legs dissolved as if it were a breath in the coolest winter air. I felt like I was drifting down the trail during the last two miles of my run. I was running in a void where time did not exist. Euphoria. Nirvana. Ecstasy. It was as if I could feel nothing and everything at the same time. Sounds crazy, I know, but I wanted to stay in that moment and never leave. The problem with running and the runner’s high is it is addicting.

My runs started becoming less and less about mindfulness, meditation, and meditation. Running became more about adding mileage. Running stopped serving the function of wellness and physical health. My long runs got longer, and the longer runs got longer still. Running started becoming the center of my focus, the topic of every conversation, and the invader of my daily routine. Yes, I was even avoiding responsibilities to go for a run. Sound familiar? In the height of my obsession to train for an ultramarathon, I strained the adductor muscles in both legs. An injury? No! Seems I was paid a little visit by my old friend, Denial. My logic became distorted, just like any addict that does not wish to give up his or her addiction. My solution:  I would “run through” the injury. I would continue to run until I hit the runner’s high and wait for my body to go numb. During my last attempt to make that happen, my body was telling me to stop at mile twelve, but I kept going. I wound up in so much pain, I limped for over two miles back to my car.  And guess what? I never hit the runner’s high that day.

One bad decision cost me my depression fighter, anxiety reliever, and mood stabilizer. I could not run. I was miserable. I finally understood I was being taught a lesson in balance and moderation. Through this injury, I began to understand how much I had allowed something so harmless to completely take over my life. Fortunately, I did not have to stop exercise altogether, but running was out of the question, at least for several weeks. In this experience I learned addiction creeps in wearing many disguises, and hobbies are best enjoyed when done in moderation with balance.

-My name is Candace and I am a person in long term recovery since 6/17/14
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