Running Towards the Emotional Recovery “Finish Line”
by Christian Burgess, Director, Disaster Distress Helpline
(Originally published April 2016, updated April 2018)
I’m the Director of the national Disaster Distress Helpline, a 24/7 crisis hotline dedicated to providing emotional support for survivors, loved ones of victims, first responders, and anyone in the U.S. and territories struggling with distress or other mental health concerns during any phase of a natural or human-caused disaster. Needless to say, my job can be stressful at times, which is one of the reasons why I’m also a runner. Running allows me time to process feelings, think of new ideas, and channel unspent energy from one day so that I might be better equipped to face the next.
This is a common theme of runners, and I’m no exception: Exercise & movement as therapy. No matter your sport, abilities, and no matter at what level you dedicate yourself, from the “Couch to 5K” first-timer to an experienced ultra-distance competitor, many of us engage our bodies in order to stimulate our minds and better understand our emotions.
Ironically, in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing five years ago, I still remember how frustrating it was that I didn’t have the chance to run that week because I was so busy, working alongside my colleagues with the Disaster Distress Helpline at MHA-NYC to ensure that our network of crisis contact centers across the country had the support they needed to, in turn, support callers and texters who were reaching out because of what the DDH provides: Resources for coping, referrals to community-based services for follow-up support, or just a listening ear.
Running is a sport rife with metaphors, and so for those that may be struggling five years after the Boston Marathon Bombing – or after any disaster –I offer these 5 tips that can help you continue on the path towards reaching the emotional recovery “finish line”:
Draw on past experience …
What has helped you get through or recover from a tough race in the past? While sometimes it’s easy to forget, coping during a stressful time in your life is a lot like thinking about past races when you’re getting ready for your next one: What worked for you then can also help you now.
… While also trying new techniques!
Every runner likes to try new gadgets, and often times these then lead to new discoveries. Similarly, when you’re feeling stressed, try new ways to cope- For example, if you use running as a form of coping, vary your running route or cross-train. Other new coping techniques might include engaging in creative arts or practicing or developing a new hobby. Also, try techniques that help you to slow down(while not stopping altogether) vs. trying to run ahead of the pack- Take walks, listen to soothing music, pamper yourself in some way.
Help out others along the course
Spectators along a race route aren’t just there to look or be looked at: they cheer and offer encouragement. Runners along the route also help each other when another falters. Apply the same approach to the healing process after a disaster: Offer to those struggling your shoulder to lean on, a listening ear, and offer help while they’re recovering- babysitting, running an errand, making a meal, all of these ‘random acts of kindness’ can actually go a long way in helping a disaster survivor understand that she or he is not alone in their recovery. What’s more, you’ll feel better yourself.
Recovery is possible
In a difficult race, the finish line might seem far off, but you know it’s there: one foot in front of the other, and eventually you’ll cross that finish line. Recovery looks different for every person and may have ups and downs, but getting to the point where you feel like you can move forward – just like getting over ‘the wall’ in a long race –is possible.
Know your limits
Even after trying these tips, sometimes you need to know when you have to seek help along the course. Knowing your limits isn’t a sign of failure, it’s a recognition that we’re all human, and therefore we all need help in order to be able to get back up and try again some other time.
If you or someone you care about is struggling after a disaster, reach out to the Disaster Distress Helpline, 24/7: call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746.