Six Ways Exercise Can Prevent and Treat Anxiety

Exercise is one of the best ways to maintain your physical health.  But many people don’t realize how vital it is for mental health as well.  It reduces your chances of dementia, improves memory, and decreases the number of anxiety and depressive episodes you might experience.  If you are one of the people that relies on exercise to keep depression or anxiety under control, this is nothing new to you. 

But there are plenty of people who might tell you “it’s all in your head. Don’t listen to them! 

Anxiety Isn’t “All In Your Head”

First of all, anxiety is part of the normal survival mechanisms baked into human physiology.  It depends on a complex interplay between your brain, peripheral nervous system, several different glands, and the hormones they produce.  And sure, the brain is one of the largest parts of this system.  But your brain is an organ just like any other.  And it responds to signalling molecules (hormones) just like any other organ.  

So, just because your brain is where you feel anxiety doesn mean that your brain is solely responsible for causing your anxiety.

Systems That Affect Your Anxiety Level

There are many different systems in your body that regulate your mood and anxiety levels.  And most of these operate without any direct input from your conscious thoughts.  But, most of them can be affected by exercise!

The first of these is the sympathetic nervous system, which gives you the “fight or flight” response. It gets you all keyed up to either “battle or skedaddle.” The other side of the coin is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the “rest and relax” system.

The second is the adrenal system itself.  Your adrenal glands sit on your kidneys and help to control your blood pressure, metabolic rate, and response to stress.  The  adrenal glands produce adrenalin and cortisol, two major stress hormones,  and are regulated by the hypothalamus and pituitary glands.

The third system is the serotonin system in your brain.  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate your mood.  Low levels of serotonin are associated with such nasty situations as depression, anxiety, and learned helplessness.

A fourth system is the endorphin system.  The endorphins are your brain’s natural painkillers.  They are responsible for the feeling of “runner’s high” and produce an elevation of your mood.

The fifth factor affecting anxiety, mood, and memory is BDNF.  Brain-Derived Neutotrophic Factor (BDNF for short) is a hormone that improves mood, is active in your brain’s memory centers, and also helps increase the growth of neurons in your brain.

And the sixth system regulating anxiety is the truly psychological mechanisms including desensitization, distraction, and self-efficacy.


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Negative Self-Talk can hold you back. Learn simple ways to stop your negative thoughts HERE.


Fight Or Flight Physiology

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system play a big role in the regulation of your “state of arousal.”  Yes, this can include your state of sexual arousal, but the term refers more broadly to whether or not you are feeling safe and secure or ready to defend yourself.  

The sympathetic system acts to increase blood pressure and heart rate, increases the blood flow to your muscles, decreases the blood flow to your digestive organs, and increases your production of adrenelin.  The parasympathtic system essentially does the opposite.  

And research has shown that regular exercise results in long term changes to these unconscious nervous systems.  The more you exercise, the less active your sympathetic system becomes.  That means it becomes harder to trigger panic attacks, and you have a reduced feeling of general anxiety

The Adrenal Glands – Panic! At The Ready

The adrenal glands are tightly connected to and regulated by the Hypothalamus and Pituitary glands.  The entire system is called the HPA Axis.  And it responds to both physical and mental sources of stress.  So yes, your body responds to psycho-social stress in the same way as it would to a tiger or other physical dangers.

You may be familiar with cortisol, one of the body’s major stress hormones.  Well, did you know that chronic stress can increase the number of cortisol receptors in your body, making you MORE sensitive to stress?! That means the more stress you are under, the more easily your body responds to that same stress!

 But exercise can block that by decreasing cortisol levels as well as decreasing cortisol-receptor levels.  And it works at multiple levels; from the hypothalamus, to the pituitary, and down to the adrenals glands themselves.

Serotonin, the Mood Regulator

Serotonin is a signalling molecule on the nervous system and plays a major role in regulation of mood and anxiety.  Many medications used to treat anxiety and depression do so by increasing the amount of serotonin in critical areas of your brain.  Fortunately, regular exercise can also increase the levels of serotonin in your brain!  

The effectiveness of exercise will vary between people quite a bit.  In some people, exercise alone may be enough to control anxiety or depression symptoms.  But some people may still need the help of medication in addition to regular exercise for complete control.  

This is why it’s irresponsible to tell people to toss out their medications and that they only need to exercise to fix their brain.  Yes, exercise is a great way to HELP control anxiety and depression.  But it’s NOT ENOUGH ALONE for many people.  Don’t feel bad for needing medication to correct a chemical imbalance that you did nothing to deserve.

Endorphins; They’re What’s Good

Endorphins are part of the normal pain relief systems, the natural chemicals that opioids like morphine mimic.  They are the natural way that your body regulates the amount of pain you feel.  And they also lift your mood.  In fact, they are largely the reason why you feel good after you exercise or when you get a “runner’s high.”  

Exercise causes damage to your muscles.  Endorphins are your body’s way of saying “eh… we don’t really need to feel the pain right now” because whatever is chasing you is probably much more likely to inflict much more pain anyway.  And that can be very helpful to your mood in the short term.  It may even help prevent anxiety in the long term too!

BDNF; Keeping Your Brain Young

In the simplest of terms, BDNF helps to keep your brain cells happy, healthy, and growing. It is necessary to form strong synaptic connections in the brain and also plays a significant role in anxiety and mood.  BDNF is increased with regular exercise and is probably one of the main ways that exercise decreases your risk of dementia and memory loss.

But we also see that BDNF levels are decreased in anxiety.  Fortunately exercise can increase BDNF levels.   And that seems to be one of the ways that exercise helps to decrease anxiety in the long term.

Sweat and Psychotherpy

Exposure and Extinction

Anyone with anxiety knows that it can be nefarious because it builds upon itself.  Simply becoming anxious about a panic attack can be enough to trigger one.  But exercise can help you to desensitize yourself to many feelings associated with anxiety. 

Excessive sweating, racing pulse, increased respiratory rate: all these can be signs of an impending anxiety attack.  But by experiencing them regularly during exercise, you can retrain your brain to tolerate these sensations rather than fearing them. It’s happens the same way you stop hearing the clocks in your house, or the smell of your own home, or the weight of your watch.

Self Efficacy – controlling yourself and your world

Another psychological factor that plays an important role here is self-efficacy.  Exercise gives us an important sense of control in our lives.  We improve our body, increase our sense of discipline, and heighten our sense of mastery of ourselves and our environment.  This is why exercise requiring mastery of complex skills such as martial arts, boxing, or complex lifts are more effective than simple methods like jogging.

And another reason exercise may help is simple distraction.  Many people refer to the gym as their “happy hour” because they get a chance to focus on themselves instead of the multitude of other stresses they face.  This effect can be heightened by participating in exercise routines that focus on mindfulness such as yoga, martial arts, and complex lifting.

You Aren’t Alone

Remember, you aren’t making this up, and there are others like you . I have a lot of patients that find their anxiety and depression overwhelming after an injury. In addition the stress and worry about their injury, they have to cope with the loss of their regular exercise routine.

I’ve had many patients that needed to increase their usual medication dosing. And I’ve had a couple of people that needed to be admitted to the hospital for inpatient treatment of depression or anxiety after surgery.

Just because your brain resides in your skull does not mean that anxiety is all in your head.  Anxiety and the signaling pathways that control it served a vital role when we lived in The Wild.  But it’s easy for systems that evolved to protect us in the jungle to go haywire in modern life. 

Fortunately, regular intense exercise can be a fantastic way of regulating these complex systems.  Some people may find exercise to be adequate when dealing with these issues. 

It’s not unusual for people like this to find their emotions of depression and anxiety to be suddenly overwhelming when they are unable to exercise due to injury.  For these people, it is important to seek help from your doctor. Some may require medication in addition to exercise, and that’s okay. A need for medication indicates the severity of the disease, not a personal failing.

References 

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