You know the old saying about how something can be “a blessing and a curse?” Well, I believe that this is always true. I often remind myself:

  • The extent to which something is a blessing, it is a curse to an equal extent.
  • The extent to which something is a curse, it is a blessing to an equal extent.

As an example, I am an introvert.  Score!  I have a rich inner life, I don’t need gadgets to keep me entertained, I don’t get hurt when people ignore me (because I don’t notice), and I’ve saved hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars on social outings.  Blessing.

On the other hand, being an introvert (especially an introverted educator who talks for a living) means that sometimes I get trapped in my own head. I don’t know how to calm down.  It isn’t always that there is something bothering me (which is very confusing to my husband), but rather that my thoughts have become disordered. If they do not get reorganized in time, I get grumpy. I become desperate for time alone, I get snippy about dumb stuff, and I find myself staring out windows feeling like I might cry if I wasn’t so angry. About what? No one knows… not even me. Curse.

I’ve long been an avid journaler for just this reason. If I can get my thoughts out on paper, then I can reattribute and reassess things that bother me, chew on a thought that is unsettled until it falls into place, and generally let a lot of stuff go.

The process reminds me of those old defragmenter programs that I used when I had a PC.  The display always showed the computer moving from an angry mess of multicolored boxes to a carefully ordered array of blue and gold.

Journalling is a great way to do that kind of mental sifting, but it can take a long time. Sometimes I have to write for a few hours to really unblock something and let it go. And I don’t know about you, but time is something I really don’t have.

When the issue is truly a problem (i.e., how can I talk to this person about that thing without causing a political firestorm?) then journaling really is the best way to go. But here’s a secret I uncovered in the last few years: when the issue at hand isn’t a clear problem but instead represents a disgruntled state of mind, then exercise is a much faster, much less intense way to do the same thing.

When I’m cranky because I haven’t had any time to process things — having gone from one committee meeting, consulting project or coaching session to another without any time to stop and think about what I think about what I think (see? introvert=blessing and a curse) — I can go for a run and finish it feeling ordered again, in less than half the time. Bam!

It’s no secret that I started running as a last resort; I was the anti-athlete for most of my life. Part of the reason for that, I’m convinced, is that I’m an introvert.  Gyms are loud and garishly social, competition is of no interest to me, and the introvert brain doesn’t create that “runners’ high” that extroverts get. (This makes the immediate impact of running different… they feel awesome, I feel tired.)

Check out the Facebook Live Video embedded below about the psychology of introverts and exercise.

But once I made it through the turmoil of learning how to run, I started to notice this unexpected and amazing defragmenting benefit. As my body pounds the pavement in the background, my brain is wandering, pondering and processing. Good ideas come to me on runs without any conscious effort: a gift idea for my son’s birthday, a new way to structure some data, a different approach to coaching, an acknowledgment that I was mean to my daughter and should apologize… all of these things get processed at warp speed when running.  After half an hour or so of running, I return to my life with a clearer mind and I am capable of much more kindness.

I also found runs to be a helpful way to process grief. When my Dad died suddenly in 2013, for example, I couldn’t bear to think about it directly. Journalling, therefore, was completely out of the question. Every time I would try, I’d find myself highly agitated or consumed by grief. The mindset of the run, on the other hand, gave me a way to dip in and out without being overcome- allowing me to process my grief in tiny pieces until I could approach it more directly.

In short, regardless of whether I’m just generally cranky or feeling fragile, running has been, much to my surprise, a very efficient path to peace. It is not the only path, for sure.  If you don’t think that running is for you, download this PDF where I recommend some other options.

I know how hard it is to consider running if you’ve never done it. If you do want to give it a shot, I unequivocally recommend doing a Couch to 5k program (C25k). It ensures that you don’t try to do too much all at once (which could stop you in your tracks).

If you’re wondering whether running is right for you, I’ve created a cheat sheet to help you decide.  It asks you some questions, describes the C25k program, and includes some links to get you started.

If it turns out that running just isn’t for you, the cheat sheet also includes other exercise activities I’ve personally tried that will give you some of the same brain-settling benefits.

Check it out and then tell me what you think in the comments below or on the Facebook page.

Check out the Facebook Live deeper dive into the psychology of introversion and exercise!

About the author

Dr. Amanda Crowell is a cognitive psychologist and business coach who helps accidental entrepreneurs get more clients and have a bigger impact. She is the author of Great Work, the host of the Unleashing Your Great Work podcast, and the creator of the Great Work Journals. Amanda's TEDx talk has received almost two million views and has been featured on TED's Ideas blog and Ted Shorts. Her ideas have also been featured on NPR, Al Jazeera, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, and Thrive Global.