Among the many inspiring stories at this year’s New York City Marathon, one first-time marathoner was determined to make an impact on a cause very dear to his heart, running to raise awareness and defeat the stigma surrounding the struggle with mental health.
“The last couple of years have been so difficult for everybody,” said 32-year-old Chris Vetter of Port Washington, New York, who has struggled with anxiety since he was in high school. “I wanted to be a part of something bigger … that’s why I chose to run with a mental health charity.”
For Vetter it was personal. “My anxiety attacks were so bad, one time I actually thought I was dying. I thought the room was caving in and collapsing,” he said.
He said he was also deeply affected watching his twin sister’s battles with severe depression and bipolar disorder in high school and in college.
He gets emotional talking about her.
“A really big part for me is my twin sister. In high school she wasn’t going to school every day … I was sleeping on her pull-out bed couch in her bedroom, trying to figure out how do I make her happy, how do I make her feel different. She’s my twin sister. I still want her to be the happiest person she possibly can be every single day.”
Vetter raised money for Still I Run, a nonprofit running community that works to promote the benefits of running for mental health. He was selected from hundreds of applicants.
Still I Run CEO and director Sasha Wolff founded the nonprofit following her own battles with depression.
“After I was hospitalized for depression and anxiety, I found running,” she said. “I have not stopped running for my mental health since because it’s that sense of accomplishment, that confidence, there’s the chemical reaction going on in your brain.”
Exercise in general and running in particular have long been linked with positive health benefits. Serotonin, dopamine and endorphins are all hormones our bodies produce while running and are known to reduce anxiety and depression.
Licensed clinical social worker Cristen Van Vleet, a runner herself, talks to her clients about running for anxiety.
“Part of what happens when someone is anxious is … we get caught in our own head,” said Van Vleet. “When we get outside, things become larger than us. We have to focus on our breathing. We have to focus on our heart rate. It takes the focus off of the hamster wheel that has happened in our brain that puts us in an anxious state.”
Vetter said running has allowed him to “just be in my own zone. I can collect my thoughts.”
And he sees the parallels between running and mental health.
“Sometimes you’re running downhill and you can’t stop your legs and everything’s kind of snowballing downhill,” he said. “And then sometimes you’re running back uphill and everything’s going better. And then also sometimes you’re just on flat road and everything’s OK. But that’s life, too.”
The “Still I Run” team raised over $40,000 at the marathon.
“It feels amazing but the job’s not done … this is only the beginning just for my own personal journey and I want to continue on that mission,” Vetter said.
He now wants to spread the message of how running can really improve one’s mental state.
“At the end of the day, you feel better … you’re able to think about everything so much clearer. I encourage everybody to just get outside and run,” he said.