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*** What Can Exercise Do for Anxiety? is part 6 in a series of posts. If you want to read part 1, click here. You don’t have to read the entire series to understand each individual post, but they are written to be complimentary to each other! ***
As usual: I am NOT a doctor, and I am not formally educated on mental illness. You should see a doctor to learn about your options. You should discuss any workout plan with your doctor and make sure you are physically able before beginning.
Exercise and Mental Health
You’ll see exercise recommended OFTEN as a first course of treatment for depression. There is absolutely no question in anyone’s mind that exercise = endorphins = happy feeling. (Ok, there’s also no question that it’s not that easy, or depression wouldn’t exist, but there’s lots of evidence to suggest that it can move you in the right direction.)
Here’s a super awesome infographic from healthcentral.com. It explains pretty well the different hormones and regions of the brain that are involved in the whole exercise = happy thing.
I can very much vouch for this actually. A few years ago I was going through a difficult time in my life. Far more difficult than anything I’ve ever experienced before, and everywhere I looked in my life there was just more pain and more darkness.
Somehow, (divinely, I’m sure) I got to the gym, got myself on the treadmill, and put myself through an hour of sweating and suffering and hating every second of it. Then I did it again the next day, and the one after that. And one day, pretty early on in my gym journey, I was on my way home after my (slow) run. Sitting at a red light and catching my breath, I got the most amazing feeling – something I hadn’t felt in months and months. I felt like maybe everything was going to be ok.
A little bit of the pressure had eased up, just briefly. It felt amazing.
Nothing had changed in my circumstances… so it had to be the exercise. I was convinced, then, to keep it up. That hour at the gym became the most important thing I did for myself (next to therapy), and I even learned to look forward to it and ENJOY it.
But what about exercise and anxiety? Is it just as beneficial?
Anxiety and depression are pretty closely related. You’ll notice that infographic talked about cortisol. As your main stress hormone, it makes sense that something as stressful as anxiety would have a pretty close relationship with cortisol. The following excerpt from a calmclinic.com article explains a little further:
“Cortisol and anxiety have a cyclical relationship. On the one hand, anxiety is essentially mental stress, and when you’re mentally stressed you release cortisol. However, research has also confirmed that excess stress hormone can cause both anxiety and depression, and contribute to the likelihood of an anxiety attack. Cortisol can have a powerful effect on your brain, and anything that increases cortisol production or decreases cortisol reduction (such as a lack of exercise) can cause anxiety.”
Soooo… physically, we could say that yes, in fact, exercise will possibly (likely) have a positive effect on your anxiety. But for me, it goes even a bit further than just the hormones and the science.
The ways that exercise helps me beat anxiety
So the chemical changes that exercise causes that literally calm your body and mind – that’s scientific and there’s no argument for that. But what if your anxiety isn’t necessarily chemical (or maybe you don’t believe it’s chemical?)
I still think that there are ways that exercise will benefit your anxiety.
For me, much of my anxiety is caused by thinking. I KNOW how detrimental thinking is for me. My thoughts spin off in dangerous directions and if I’m not actively controlling them, then there’s no telling where they’ll lead (but it’s probably no where good). Next week I’ll have a whole post on getting your thinking under control, but for now let’s just agree that it’s a good idea 🙂
There are times when it’s nearly impossible for me to stop the thought train… I try all the techniques I’ve learned, but every few minutes I’m yanked back onto a nasty (unhealthy) train of thoughts that I just can’t get off of.
But running. I put on my I grab my itty-bitty ipod shuffle (which has all songs that I love, and find easy to concentrate on) and I run until I can’t hear myself think. I need to focus on breathing, on moving forward, on not quitting. Sometimes I think about how much it hurts or how much farther I have to go, or how much faster I CAN go, but I don’t have the energy to think about anything but running and my music when I run.
It’s like a short vacation from anxiety. It doesn’t end when the run ends though. I stop to stretch, and I lay down and listen to my heart pound and my breathing return to normal. I think about things like how far I’ve come and how much stronger I feel. My brain is naturally distracted.
(A word of warning tho! Make sure you are physically able to exercise before starting any workout programs, and then start slow. I started running in a pair of regular old shoes and did some serious damage to my legs. I even hired a trainer to show me what I was doing wrong and it literally came down to buying better shoes. I got these ones, and my shin splints WENT AWAY!) Anyhow!
Over time, my brain has come to associate the gym, the treadmill, the yoga mat with not-anxious feelings. Just walking in the door can be a step in a calming direction.
Not only that, but there is something magic about exercise that makes you feel different about yourself. Stronger, more powerful, more in control of your body. I feel less self conscious (no, I haven’t lost any weight or gained many muscles), my body and I are friends. You might not realize it, but this could be a huge help for your anxiety (especially if any of it is social).
Yoga for Anxiety
Maybe I should clarify that I’m not talking about grabbing your shoes and heading out the door if you feel a panic attack coming. I’m talking about making exercise part of your routine, in the hopes of prevention.
That said, there are people who swear that Yoga is the answer if you’re feeling consumed by your anxiety. This makes sense because of the strong focus on breathing and relaxing – it would make yoga very useful for an “in the moment” treatment of panic attacks or overwhelming anxiety.
I haven’t personally tried yoga for anxiety because my panic attacks are rare these days and I don’t feel like I’ve had a need for it. If you’re still in the “learning to control your anxiety” stage, then yoga would probably be worth a shot! Here’s a 12 minute Yoga Workout to Calm Stress and Anxiety. I can’t think of any reason NOT to try it if you’re struggling. (I’d love to hear from you if you do give it a shot and find it beneficial!)
If you’re struggling with anxiety I really, really encourage you to try working out (if the doctor okays it!) Getting your mind on something else and getting the good anxiety-busting hormones going certainly won’t hurt you!
Read Part 1 of The Ultimate Guide to Living (Well) With Anxiety
Read Part 2 – Understanding Anxiety Disorders
Read Part 3 – Understanding Panic Attacks
Read Part 4 – Anxiety and Diet
Read Part 5 – Natural Supplements for Anxiety
Read Part 7 – Do Not Feed The Fears
Read Part 8 – Talking About Anxiety
Read Part 9 – For the Christian with Anxiety
Read Part 10 – 3 Things to Remember When You Are Anxious
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