I work with teenagers who run. They run away from home because of abuse, violence, addiction problems, and an assortment of other issues. A rather common mistaken belief is that they are running away to have a good time, and/or don’t want to follow rules. However, in reality they are usually running from a negative, hurtful family situation. For the youth with whom I work, many of them believe that their only chance to survive is to run away. They are not mature enough or streetwise enough to realize that the street may be no safer than the home that they are fleeing. Many, if they paused to think through their decision, would still run believing that life on the street would give them more control over their lives. But in reality, once they hit the street often they find themselves trapped in dangerous circumstances and may get manipulated into prostitution, drug dealing or thievery.
I receive calls from Social Service Workers asking me if I can work with teens who have been found and returned home or placed in foster care or a group home and they say to me, “She / He is a runner.” Often there is a belief that if the child or youth ran, that they need to be pulled in. They need discipline, structure, and need to learn respect. Tamed.
Yes, I agree we all need some of that. However, after doing trauma work for many years I respect that somatically these kids knew that running was what was needed. There is strength and courage in running. Running sometimes is the only sane action one can take. The problem is not the running; the problem is what they are running from and where they are running to and often is not to safety.
After they are picked up by the police and placed in a foster or group home they now have a new trauma to deal with. By the time I see them, they are often angry, confused and no longer willing to trust anyone. Now instead of being free they are trapped in a new situation where they have less freedom, less control and power. But their bodies remember the high of running. They remember the state of euphoria of getting out of a dangerous situation combined with the environmental stimuli and the biological aspects of stress of the escape. Endorphin levels are raised when running under stress and this creates the runners high. Moods are elevated and pain decreases.
Human beings have always ran. We ran to hunt and to survive being hunted. When in danger the muscles, viscera and nervous system are all preparing us for escape. This urge to run is experienced as the feeling of danger. Anxiety actually occurs when our flight from danger is somehow thwarted or aborted, so we don’t get to complete our response to it. We experience trauma when we feel trapped and can’t flee. Without active defense responses, we are unable to deal effectively with danger, and so we become anxious and go into freeze. Freeze becomes trauma.
I am a runner. I run for exercise and sanity. When I run I feel strong, free and happy. When I was younger if I had have been wise enough, brave enough or empowered enough to run, I would have. When I work with youth who run, it’s not the running that I want to stop, but the direction that they are running in. I want to help them to learn how to run to safety and support. I want them to run into empowerment, self-worth and self-love. Their instinctual bodily wisdom to run away was right. What was not right were the reasons they ran in the first place.
Art Therapy Exercise for Running
Many of the young boys I work with have ADHD. They have a hard time sitting still and waiting for recess or lunch. Their bodies need to move. When they can’t physically move, I tell them to close their eyes and imagine that they are on a beach or a wide open field and they are running as fast and as hard as they can. In this way, their bodies get some internal sense of movement and their minds relax. This art therapy exercise is to use when you want to run or walk but can’t.
Gather some art supplies. Start by getting comfortable, feeling grounded in your chair and noticing your feet and legs. Take a minute to notice your feet. Take some time to relax your feet and let them make contact with the floor. Press your heals into the floor, then the toes. Gently press both sides of your feet into the floor. Now rock back and forth on your toes to your heals. Notice if you sense any colour in your feet. Now shift your attention to the chair under your legs and buttocks and adjust yourself to get even more comfortable in your chair. Take a deep breath into your stomach. How is your stomach? Do you sense any emotion here? Bring awareness to your back. What are you noticing here? Is your back tense or feeling relaxed? Now move to your chest. Can you breathe freely? Is your chest open or closed? Notice if your chest is constricted, expanded, or in some other state. Now move your awareness to your hands and arms. Notice if there is any tension and gently release it. Take time to sense into your hands, stretching the fingers. If your hands could be anywhere in nature, where would they want to be? What would they be touching? Now, bring awareness to your neck, then your head. Release any tension in your jaw and neck area. Now gently turn inward, sensing into your inner throat, chest and then resting in the belly area.
Now imagine the perfect place to run. Take time to notice the scenery, smells, hear the sounds. Notice the temperature and feel the air on your skin. Start running in your mind and stay present in your legs and feet as you effortlessly move. Notice the changing scenery and feel the different parts of your body responding to the running. Feel your arms swaying, and bring awareness to your chest. Now, when you are ready bring your hand to the paper in front of you and continue to run on the paper. Move your hand in rhythm with your moving body. Reflect the movement and feel of the run.