Running To “Escape” Stress? It Could Lead to Dependence
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A new study by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) explored whether “escapism” can help us to understand running motivation and exercise dependence.
“Escapism” is a concept often defined as something that we do to avoid or forget unpleasant things.
An example could be an activity that you undertake to “switch off” from the thinking brain, or a form of entertainment that you become so absorbed in, you simply lose any sense that you’re actually watching it.
“Many of our everyday activities may be interpreted as escapism,” says Dr. Frode Stenseng, professor in the Department of Education and Lifelong Learning at the NTNU. “The psychological reward from escapism is reduced self-awareness, less rumination, and a relief from one’s most pressing, or stressing, thoughts and emotions.”
Escapism is typically an everyday occurrence for humans, but its motivational underpinnings and physiological outcomes are not widely understood. There are two forms of escapism:
- Escapism that is adaptive – such as the seeking out of positive experiences – known as self-expansion
- Escapism that avoids negative experiences (maladaptive escapism) – known as self-suppression
The former may have more positive effects and long-term benefits for the individual; the latter, in contrast, often suppresses positive feelings and can lead to further avoidance in the future.
“These two forms of escapism are stemming from two different mindsets, to promote a positive mood, or prevent a negative mood,” says Stenseng.
The physical activity of running is regarded by many as a “stress-busting” form of exercise. Stenseng is the lead author of a new study that explored how the concept of escapism might provide an understanding of the relationship between running, wellbeing and exercise dependence.
Self-suppression associated with exercise dependence
A cohort of 227 recreational runners – 50% women and 50% men – were recruited to the study. The participants had varying running practices, and were asked to complete questionnaires that explored three aspects of escapism and exercise dependence:
- An escapism scale – which analyzed preference for self-expansion or self-suppression
- An exercise dependence sale
- A satisfaction with life scale, constructed to measure the subjects’ subjective wellbeing
Stenseng and colleagues found very little overlap between runners that favor self-expansion and runners that favor self-suppression as modes of escapism. Self-expansion positively related to wellbeing, whereas self-suppression related negatively.
Both forms of escapism were associated with exercise dependence, however, this association was stronger in runners with a preference for self-suppression.
Neither self-expansion or self-suppression preferences were linked to factors such as gender, age or amount of time spent running, though both modes impacted the relationship between exercise dependence and wellbeing.
The authors note that a sense of lower wellbeing may be both a cause and an outcome of exercise dependency – both driving and promoting it. It could also be promoted by a positive experience of self-expansion.
“In conclusion, the present findings support escapism as a relevant framework for understanding the relationship between exercise dependence in running and subjective well-being,” the authors write.
“More studies using longitudinal research designs are necessary to unravel more of the motivational dynamics and outcomes in escapism,” says Stenseng. “But these findings may enlighten people in understanding their own motivation, and be used for therapeutical reasons for individuals striving with a maladaptive engagement in their activity.”
This article is a rework of a press release issued by Frontiers. Material has been edited for length and content.
Reference: Stenseng F, Steinsholt IB, Hygen BW, Kraft P. Running to get “lost”? Two types of escapism in recreational running and their relations to exercise dependence and subjective well-being. Front. Psychol. 2023;13. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.1035196.