How running helped me through OCD

In 2011, at the age of 17, Claudia Barnett – now 23 – first experienced symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, a debilitating mental health condition that soon plagued her everyday life.

‘I was a happy child, but in the lead-up to my A-level exams I suddenly had an incredibly upsetting, intrusive thought. It was completely out of character, and I was so horrified by the fact it had even reached my consciousness, that I didn’t stop thinking about it.’

It soon got a lot worse for Claudia. ‘It was a domino effect; I became trapped in these horrific thought cycles, and it turned me into a different person. I was scared to pick up a knife, to have supper or even to have a bath.’

Claudia was experiencing a condition known as Pure OCD (officially known as Primarily Cognitive Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Pure OCD has different symptoms to those traditionally associated with OCD – rather than outwardly-visible compulsive behaviour such as hand-washing and arranging objects in a particular way, people with Pure OCD have obsessions and compulsions which are mostly mental and unseen. These can include intrusive thoughts and unrelenting fears of hurting others.

While 1-2% of the population suffer from OCD, Pure OCD is believed to be less common. Due to the rare nature of her condition, Claudia had no idea what was happening to her. ‘Part of the reason I suffered so badly was because I didn’t know what was going on in my head — I only knew OCD to be an obsession with germs and counting, and not the horrific intrusive thoughts and rumination I was suffering.’

Months later, Claudia saw a specialist who diagnosed her and prescribed her medication: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, a form of antidepressants often used for OCD patients. However, she still didn’t feel completely right. ‘While living in London on my university placement year, I was leading an unhealthy lifestyle: drinking and eating too much, going out a lot and doing very little exercise.’

Claudia’s upcoming 21st birthday put an added pressure on her to get better: ‘I kept thinking to myself: “If I’m not happy and healthy at 21, will I ever be?”’.

‘At this point, I had no idea how much physical and mental health are linked – but everything changed when I read Alexandra Heminsley’s ‘Running Like A Girl’. I already knew I hated other forms of exercise (having been put off swimming and netball at school), but I hadn’t tried running before – plus it’s free, which was perfect for my tight student budget.’

Thankfully, the new exercise regime proved a game changer for Claudia. She started off using the Couch to 5K app, and soon found her runs made a huge difference to her mental state. ‘I was finally building a physical foundation to make myself better.’

She subsequently appeared on the BBC’s Mind Over Marathon series earlier this year, which followed several runners with different mental health conditions as they trained for the London Marathon. Although Claudia was prevented from completing the marathon due to a long term spinal injury, it did give her a platform to talk about how running improved her condition.

Today, she describes running as part of her ‘mental health arsenal’. ‘The repetitive nature of running also helps me calm down. It helps me organise my thoughts, get out of my head and focus on my physical self rather than my mental state. I also sleep better now, which is something my OCD made difficult.’

Despite this, Claudia would be the last person to describe herself as a ‘keen runner’. ‘To this day, I can't honestly say I look forward to runs. In fact, when I appeared on Mind Over Marathon, my boyfriend joked “When are you going to tell them you hate running?”’ But the feeling afterwards is a different story. ‘Now I know you can’t have good mental health if your physical health is suffering.’

Despite her spinal injury, Claudia has high hopes for running London Marathon next year – and has already scored a place to compete. ‘I need to seriously rehabilitate my injury before I even think about training, however, giving myself the goal of running next year gives me something to work towards, which is important when other areas of my life feeling off course.’