You know, but you probably need to be told again: exercise is a foundational pillar of anxiety treatment.
One of the most powerful and effective methods for reducing generalized anxiety and a predisposition to panic attacks is regular, vigorous exercise. Like eating well and getting enough sleep, the power of physical exercise for anxiety relief is one of those things that is widely-known, deceptively simple, and woefully neglected by most individuals suffering from chronic anxiety and panic.
Exercise is an essential component of anxiety treatment. By “essential,” I mean that the effectiveness of other means to address anxiety such as medication, meditation, mindfulness training, etc. should be evaluated in the context of a regular exercise program. Those things all work better if you exercise regularly.
Exercise is a force multiplier for anxiety relief. Whatever else you’re working on, exercise makes it even more effective.
There is no silver bullet or one-size-fits approach to anxiety management. The factors to contributing to anxiety and panic vary for everyone. However, regular physical exercise is as close to a “global” prescription for anxiety treatment as there is. Before medication – even before therapy, meditation, diet, sleep hygiene, and mindfulness training – commit to a regular exercise program as the foundation for anxiety treatment.
Physical exercise for anxiety is not going to be the total solution for everyone (though for some it may be). It’s not going to work right away. But, it will work.
In other words, if you’re not exercising regularly, you need to start.
According to Edmund J. Borne in The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook,
“Regular exercise is an essential component of the total program for overcoming anxiety, phobias, and panic. If you combine exercise with a program of regular deep relaxation, you are undoubtedly going to experience a substantial reduction in generalized anxiety and will very likely increase your resistance to panic attacks as well. Exercise and deep relaxation are the two most effective for altering a hereditary-biochemical disposition to anxiety.”
You have a panic attack when your body’s natural fight-or-flight reaction — the sudden surge of adrenaline, cortisol, and other brain chemicals you experience in response to a real threat — becomes excessive or occurs out of context. Physical exercise is a natural outlet for the body to regulate fight-or-flight mode.
Individuals with a hereditary-biochemical disposition to anxiety who exercise regularly are less vulnerable to panic attacks. Exercise can also reduce the intensity of panic attacks when they do occur. Furthermore, exercise can also diminish the tendency to experience anticipatory anxiety toward phobic situations, ranging from heights to social situations.
In addition to the well-known bodily benefits of anxiety such as weight loss, decreased cholesterol and blood pressure, improved digestion, and energy, etc., regular exercise has a direct impact on several physiological factors that underlie anxiety:
- More rapid metabolism of excess adrenaline and thyroxin in the bloodstream, the presence of which tends to keep you in a state of arousal and vigilance
- Lower sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis reactivity
- Increased serotonergic and noradrenergic levels in the brain, similar to the effects of antidepressants.
- Exercise reduces skeletal muscle tension, which is responsible for feelings of being tense or “uptight”
- Increased levels of norepinephrine. Learned helplessness due to chronic stress has been linked to depletion of norepinephrine.
- Increased endogenous opioid activity in the central and peripheral nervous system. This euphoric state, sometimes known as “runner’s high,” reduces pain and can also have a sustained anxiolytic.
- Promotion of neurogenesis (new neural growth) in the hippocampus which has been implicated in the treatment of psychiatric conditions including depression and anxiety
- A discharge of pent-up frustration and energy, which can aggravate phobic and panic reactions
The impact of exercise on the mind is as important as its impact on the body.
Exercise improves concentration, memory, our sense of well-being and has a host of other positive psychological benefits.
In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John J. Ratey says,
“Aside from elevating endorphins, exercise regulates all of the neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants. For starters, exercise immediately elevates levels of norepinephrine, in certain areas of the brain. It wakes up the brain and gets it going and improves self-esteem, which is one component of depression.
Another factor from the body that comes into play here is the atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP). Produced by the muscles of the heart itself when it’s really pumping, ANP travels through the bloodstream and into the brain, where it helps to further moderate the stress response and reduce noise in the brain. It’s a potent part of a cascade of chemicals that relieve emotional stress and reduce anxiety. Along with pain-blunting endorphins and endocannabinoids, the increase in ANP helps explain why you feel relaxed and calm after a moderate aerobic workout. When you talk about burning off stress, these are the elements at work.”
These physical benefits are just the beginning. If you have anxiety — especially if you are out of shape — you have the world to gain from a regular exercise program. You probably know it, but you need to be told again.
Even with this knowledge, the mind can always locate or contrive reasons to procrastinate. No one is immune to mental excuses. Action is the only solution. Every single person can find a regimen that fits their needs.
Building a habit is key. Start today.