Top tips to support runners experiencing mental health issues

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Although we continue to live with restrictions, we can still run with one other person and reap the mental health benefits that are provided by exercise. It is well accepted that exercise supports mental wellbeing and, very often, running with others brings greater advantages. In this article, we have considered information from MIND, a mental health charity, on some of the more common mental health issues with a view to helping Run Leaders and Coaches to support their runners.

The mental health of runners may be related to injury but like anyone else they could also be related to issues affecting their personal or professional life.   

Anxiety or Panic Attacks

It can be really difficult when someone you care about is experiencing anxiety problems or panic attacks, but there are things you can do to help.

Don't pressure them- Try not to put pressure on your friend or your runner to do more than they feel comfortable with. It's really important to be patient, listen to their wishes and take things at a pace that feels okay for them. It's understandable to want to help them face their fears or find practical solutions, but it can be very distressing for someone to feel they're being forced into situations before they feel ready. This could even make their anxiety worse. Try to remember that being unable to control their worries is part of having anxiety, and they aren't choosing how they feel.

"What helps me with anxiety, is calmness, acceptance – not trying to dispel it with 'rational' or 'logical' argument."

Helping someone who is having a panic attack - It's understandable to feel frightened if someone you care about or one of your runners experiences a panic attack – especially if it seems to happen without warning. But it can help if you:

Stay calm and reassure them know that you think they might be having a panic attack and that you are there for them

Encourage breathing slowly and deeply – it can help to count out loud, or ask them to watch while you gently raise your arm up and down

Encourage them to sit somewhere quietly until they feel better.


Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

It can be upsetting and frustrating to see a loved one's obsessive worries and compulsive behaviours impact their day-to-day life. But there are a number of things you can do to support them:

Accept their feelings. You can help a lot just by accepting the feelings of the person with BDD and recognising that they find it difficult to cope with them. While you may not understand their concerns about their appearance, it is important to recognise that these feelings are very real to them. Try to avoid judging them as 'vain' or 'self-obsessed'.

Offer space to talk.It can be particularly difficult for someone experiencing BDD to acknowledge and speak about their thoughts, especially if they find them embarrassing. But speaking can be a first step in seeking help.

Help them seek support.Offer support with self-help. If the person with BDD is working to a self-help programme, either on their own or with a therapist, you might be able to support them with this. For example, you could go to treatment sessions with them. 

Celebrate their successes.Stopping compulsive behaviours can be very difficult and it will take time. Celebrating the small steps, such as spending less time grooming or carrying out fewer repetitions, can help keep a positive outlook..

"My friends and family are absolutely wonderful. Those closest have taken the time to understand the disorder and as a result they are incredibly mindful of the irrationality it can cause. They support me in every way."

Learn their triggers.Some people with BDD find certain situations difficult and find they can provoke more repetitive behaviour. Sometimes these situations cannot be avoided (for example, seeing mirrors in shops or public toilets) but taking steps to gradually build up to the situations with them may help.

Be consistent. People with BDD may seek reassurance about the way they look. Try not to get drawn into debates about their appearance and encourage others not to do the same.

Boost their confidence.Encourage them to do the things they enjoy. Offering praise that doesn't focus on the way they look can also help to raise their self-esteem.

The Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation provides information on BDD for friends and family, as well as support groups for carers.


Here are suggestions for how you can help running friends struggling with depression, which starts with support for further help. You can't force anyone to get help if they don't want it, so it's important to reassure your loved one that it is fine to seek help, and that there is support out there.

Be open about depression. Lots of people can find it hard to open up and speak about how they're feeling. Try to be open about depression and difficult emotions, so your friend or family member knows that it's OK to talk about what they're experiencing. 

"The best things that friends and family can do is simply listen. They often don't need to say anything, just being willing to listen to your problems makes you feel less alone and isolated"

Keep in touch. It might be hard for your loved one to have the energy to keep up contact, so try to keep in touch. Even just a text message or email to let them know that you're thinking of them can make a big difference to how someone feels.

"Talking... not even talking about how I felt. Just talking about stupid things that didn't matter over coffee, without pressure and knowing that I can talk about the tough stuff if I want to."

Don't be critical. If you've not experienced depression yourself, it can be hard to understand why your friend or family member can't just 'snap out of it'. Try not to blame them or put too much pressure on them to get better straight away – your loved one is probably being very critical and harsh towards themselves already.

"Just a simple call or text asking me how I am helps. I don't want sympathy, just to know they are there if I need them."

Keep a balance. If someone is struggling, you might feel like you should take care of everything for them. While it might be useful to offer to help them do things, like getting out for some exercise, it's also important to encourage them to do things for themselves. Everyone will need different support, so talk to your friend or family member about what they might find useful to have your help with, and identify things they can try to do themselves. 

"Listen carefully, don't judge and most of all, don't say, 'Cheer up.' It's just not that simple. Sometimes solutions are unnecessary, so don't feel you have to provide one."

Eating Problems

You may feel worried if you think that someone you care about has an eating problem. It may feel difficult to know how to talk to them about it or how to deal with their changes in mood. You might have already tried to offer support, but found that the person you’re worried about is unwilling or unable to accept help. This can make you feel powerless, frustrated and angry.

In fact there are lots of helpful things you can do:

Let them know you are there.One of the most important things you can do is let the person you’re worried about know that you’re there, you’re listening and that you can help them find support. Let the person know they can talk to you when they are ready.

Try not to get angry with them. They will probably already be feeling guilty about how their behaviour is affecting you. Try to stay as empathetic and patient as possible.

Don't make assumptions. People sometimes assume that eating problems are mainly about body image, or that you can tell what eating problems someone has from their appearance. But this not true. And if you interpret someone’s eating problems in a particular way – without really listening to the person themselves – it could add to their feelings of helplessness. It could also make them less able to share their difficult emotions and seek support.

"People never seem to understand what it is. I've had it said that I'm 'scared of food', or that it's not really a disorder – that I'm 'just being fussy' – both of which really trivialise how it feels for me."

Remember that even accepting they have a problem takes time. Be patient. It can take a long time for someone to accept they have a problem and to seek help. The person you’re worried about might not see their eating as a problem. They may actually view it as a solution to coping with feelings of rage, loss, powerlessness, self-hatred, worthlessness, guilt or feeling like they have no control. They may be scared about what recovery means for them and their body.

Don't focus or comment on their appearance.Remember that someone's weight or appearance doesn't tell you how they're feeling inside. Even comments that are meant kindly such as "you look well" can often trigger very difficult feelings for someone who has an eating problem. Try asking "how are you?" instead. The eating disorder charity b-eat has more information on how to talk to someone with eating problems.

Be gentle and calm– you can't force someone to change their behaviour. Trying hard to persuade, trick or force someone into eating more or less could make them feel even more anxious and fearful about food. This could make them withdraw from you or try harder to convince you they are eating more healthily even if they are not.

"She would drive to my college everyday to help me eat. She wouldn't push me or tell me to eat, she would just sit there patiently and be with me at that difficult time in the day. She would also be with me as I had panic attacks after meals."

Include the person in social activities which is the great thing about running groups.If they find it difficult to eat, organise activities which don’t involve food.

Make meal times as stress free as possible. Don't comment on their food choices. Let them get on and eat the food they do feel able to eat.

Encourage them to seek professional help.If they are worried about talking to their doctor, you could offer to go along with them.

Accept that recovery is a long process.Remember that while their body might look healthier quickly, they may actually be finding things a lot harder emotionally. Relapses are common and can be very demoralising, but you can help by accepting this as part of the process and being there for them when they're finding things tough.