My brain doesn’t shut up. Seriously, it’s nonstop.
Did you remember to take your online econ quiz? What are you gonna wear for Anna’s birthday party? Why did One Direction have to break up? When are you gonna call your mom? Don’t forget to send Kiera that dog meme. Your hair looks weird. You have, like, 10 journalism assignments due this week, and a midterm. Also, we’re staying up all night tonight analyzing how efficiently the boy you have a crush on runs his social media.
Nothing has ever seemed to work to quiet down my stupidly active mind. I’ve laid in yoga classes, trying desperately to meditate and center myself, but I’m pretty positive my chakras have never been aligned, ever. I’ve tried listening to sensory music, but the sound of ocean waves or a rainforest thunderstorm gives me even more anxiety. I’ve tried abstaining from coffee and acidic foods. I’ve tried not playing on my phone at least a half hour before bed.
But even though people had tried to convince me that exercise could be a good way to chill out, I never really tried it. I thought they were lying, that this was their sneaky way of telling me I should probably lose weight. I also hated exercise and was so out of shape that the idea of getting on a workout machine was enough to send me into an hour-long shame spiral anyway. Running the mile in school was always the uncontested Worst Day of the Semester, and while I played field hockey for three years, I ended up quitting when my coach backhandedly remarked that I wasn’t “cut out” for the varsity team.
Admittedly, I’ve been a pretty chunky monkey my whole life: I’ve always carried around extra weight, and I’ve always eaten whatever I wanted, in whatever quantity. After leaving the field hockey team my senior year of high school, I did little to no regular physical activity, and the weight packed on. I ate Chipotle burritos, like, three days a week. Food has always been my main source of comfort, and I always need to feel uncomfortably full.
For most of my life, I've wondered if I see myself differently than other people do. My struggles with my weight have been constant. Before, it was a pretty regular thought: You are bigger. In second grade, in the girls’ bathroom, my best friend Taylor told me she was “small” and I was “medium.” She sucked in her stomach to expose her ribs through her shirt, while my bones were hidden beneath layers of baby fat. I remember realizing that “medium” was a lightly veiled insult, a gentle way of saying what she really thought: large. Although I think about this moment every day, I have never told anyone about it. Even writing it now — letting go of a secret I’ve held on to for years, the moment I realized my body was more than just mine — makes me nervous.
But these struggles were undeniably most intense during this time of complacency. For a while, I had resigned myself to my fatness; my life mantra that summer was “If you’re going to be fat, just be fat,” and I didn’t really hold back when it came to calories. After moving to New York for school, and then quickly realizing that I did not want to be in New York for school, I consoled myself with double-stuff Oreos and Milk Bar soft serve.
But food wasn’t healing me in the same way it had in the past. I’m very self-critical and hated the way I looked — and even more, I hated that I felt so horrible about myself. I also found that my anxieties about being in a strange, scary place couldn’t be fixed by cookies. So I reluctantly tried to find an alternative form of coping. My freshman year of college, I began my “fitness journey.”
I would be lying if I said I knew exactly where to start. My mom had tried to introduce me to interval running in high school, but I was resistant because running scared me. I guess I turned to this very method of running for that exact reason: because everything else in life was scaring me, and it was a scary thing that was less scary. I started doing an interval run on the treadmill, going six miles per hour (a.k.a. slow AF), stopping after 15 minutes to breathe deeply and try to hold back the vomit that was creeping up my throat.
Amazingly, despite my lack of endurance, I was resilient. I never gave up. I kept going. I threw myself into exercise unlike anything I had ever done before. I cancelled plans with friends to get in gym time. I stopped eating Oreos entirely.
But I quickly realized my newfound love was about way more than dropping weight. I found solace in the routine of becoming healthy. The more I dove into this project of self-care, the more I began to realize that being at school in New York City was wrong for me, and maybe even unhealthy. I still didn’t want to fully confront this reality, though, so as I considered what to do about the next four years of my life — and my emotions were yanked all over the place — I took control of something more concrete: my fitness and wellness.
By far my favorite part of running is what it does for my brain. It doesn’t shut up — it probably never will — but for three miles, or six miles, or 13.1 miles, my thoughts organize. They make sense, and they don’t stress me out or scare me. When I’m running, I can’t ignore what’s happening in my mind. I can think things through and come to conclusions, and the physical and mental activity is married in this different, beautiful way. When my anxiety yanks me by the hair and makes my stomach hurt, I go for a run, and it calms me down right away. It’s the healthiest coping mechanism I’ve ever encountered. Essentially, I’m not running away from my problems. I’m running right into them.
When I ran at school, I pictured myself at a different one, in a different life. There, I was happy. I was wearing a Free People dress and had longer hair and lots of friends, and I didn’t feel so alone. Running was the primary component of this whole new lifestyle. I looked forward to the 30 minutes I spent on the treadmill because it allowed me to escape my nervousness about the future.
I ended up leaving New York at the end of my first semester. I moved back home and went to community college, and while there, I ran to outrun the sadness that was threatening to swallow me whole. I hated being home. I hated my life, I hated transferring, I hated everything and everyone.
But I loved running. I could mourn the death of my New York dream on the treadmill. I could imagine a better life in Missouri in the fall. I would sometimes cry while an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians played on the TV as I ran, feeling an emotional catharsis in my stride.
Ultimately, running has made me a better student, a better friend, a better person. It has helped me grow. It helps me fight the war that’s constantly going on between my brain and me. To this day, when I can’t stop worrying about an econ quiz or how many times my crush tweets in a day, I lace up my Brooks running shoes and just go as far as my legs can take me. I’m so much happier that way.
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