Bella Mackie is a convert. “I hope to be running well into my 90s,” says the journalist and author over a coffee. For someone who used to hate exercise this is quite a turnaround, as the 35-year-old readily admits. “I used to think sport was for weirdos or people who wanted abs,” she says. “Previously I just couldn’t understand the concept of exercise.”
That was until five years ago when, in the face of crippling anxiety and the breakdown of her first marriage, she laced up her trainers for a run that would change her life…
Plagued by anxiety since childhood, Bella can recall its presence weaved into even her earliest memories. “I can remember when I was four or five years old at a school fair. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I told my mum I felt sick and asked if I could go home. I couldn’t really articulate what that was about, but I knew something wasn’t quite right. Even at that age, my mum thought I was a bit of a worrier,” she reveals.
The transition to secondary school was hard. “I sort of cried every day for a year – I really didn’t want to go”. Around the age of 11, Bella developed OCD to cope with her deteriorating mental health. “I was having scary thoughts and worrying about things I couldn’t control, so I developed obvious ticks. I’d have to turn lights on and off, and I used to spit and blink when I had bad thoughts,” she says.
Bella’s anxiety intensified at university at the age of 19, eventually forcing her to drop out. “I wasn’t suicidal, but I had thoughts in my head that I didn’t want to go on. I took meds, had therapy. Obviously, mental health issues don’t tend to get better on their own,” she says.
In the years that followed, Bella’s anxiety escalated and she became bound by rituals; avoiding particular letters, numbers, colours and songs, and only travelling to self-designated ‘safe’ places. “There were loads of places I couldn’t go because I would panic on my own. You then become slightly agoraphobic – the world outside feels scary-unsafe,” she explains.
Aged 29 Bella was married, but having trouble doing anything on her own. “I literally wouldn’t go to the corner shop,” she says. “I was at a terrible place with my anxiety.” Her world imploded when her husband walked out on their marriage after eight months, blindsiding her. “That was the worst moment, really. It was incredibly difficult.”
Despite the unbearable sadness, the end of her marriage provided a tipping point. “When he left it was a catalyst. I had to move forward and break out of this,” Bella explains.
Inspired in part by her sister who had started running, she decided to do something she’d never done before: go for a jog. “I thought if I did something physical, that might shut my head up for a bit. My body would take over and my mind would have to take a backseat for a bit,” Bella explains.
With zero fitness or expectations, Bella found herself running in a dark alleyway with Puddle of Mudd’s angry rock blasting on her headphones. “I lasted three minutes. So not a race, but definitely the start of something, the start of an idea,” she says. Her lungs burned and she ‘hated’ it. But the run temporarily quietened the chatter in her head and a different, welcome emotion appeared. “I felt quite proud of myself. I had actually achieved something on my own,” she says. “And I think that’s what made me continue.”
She returned to do it again the next day, and the next, slowly finding her fitness improve. “I ran a bit more: three minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes… And then I downloaded the NHS Couch to 5K app,” she says.
Gradually she began exploring London, venturing further into busy areas she’d previously deemed unsafe, like bustling Camden Market. “That’s what was so amazing; I’ve had panic attacks walking literally everywhere, but I felt safe with running, like I already had my escape route,” Bella explains. “I rediscovered my home city of London, a place I’d designated as dangerous and scary, and with running I’ve learned to love it again and not be scared of it.”
The positive effects of running permeated other areas of Bella’s life. “Running taught me how not to be scared and after realising not everything is a catastrophe, I did a lot of things: I left a job I’d been in for 11 years, I moved, travelled, got back on the tube, found a new partner (Bella married Radio 1 DJ Greg James last year). I really can draw a very tight correlation between running and all of those things.”
It also brought Bella a surprise book deal, after a publisher read an article she’d written about how running had helped her anxiety. Writing Jog On: How Running Saved My Life, an honest mix of her own experience, inspirational stories from other runners and mental health research, was ‘fascinating’. But the feedback she received from readers has touched her the most. “I’ve had thousands – literally – of messages from women about how it’s helped them. People saying they’ve finished Couch to 5K because of the book, or they now see they can run just for fun instead of a PB and that is just the most incredible feeling in the world,” she says.
Bella still runs almost every day, alone (“I prefer it. It’s thinking time, away from other people”), usually around 12K, sometimes less. Her anxiety is on an even keel but she’s not complacent about it. She’s also keen to point out that running didn’t ‘cure’ her anxiety. “That would be a sort of ridiculous claim,” she says. “I don’t think anything can cure anxiety, but running keeps mine in check and it’s a tool in a toolbox of a few things that I can employ.”
So what of the future? You won’t find her in an event any time soon. “I run for my mental health, so I don’t want to lose the love of it, that would knock me for six. But I love talking to people about it and trying to get the word out about it.”
Five years since that first run, Bella is a confirmed runner for life. “I hope I’ll carry on running until my knees nally give out. Running is a life-long love for me now.”
What is anxiety?
Anxiety occurs when the brain reacts to a real or imagined threat by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, our ‘flight or fight’ response. You may feel anxious in certain circumstances such as ahead of a job interview, or even on the start line of a race, but crucially it is only temporary. Experiencing feelings of anxiousness and worry that don’t go away or overwhelm you are signs of an anxiety disorder.
What are the symptoms?
Anxiety affects everyone differently. You may experience intrusive and out-of-proportion thoughts, prolonged feelings of intense panic, fear and worry, but also physical symptoms of sweating, palpitations, and breathlessness, a change in appetite, tension headaches, dizziness and insomnia.
How can I manage anxiety?
Share how you’re feeling with friends and family, and seek professional advice. Visit your GP who may suggest medication and/or psychological therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Exercise, meditation and stepping away from social media can sometimes help reduce anxiety levels. But everyone is different. Anxiety is complex and affects people in different ways, so it’s important to get professional help.
Running helped Bella manage the symptoms of her anxiety. Give it a try with these first steps:
Jog On by Bella Mackie is out now.