Aerobic exercise significantly alleviates symptoms of anxiety
Clinical trials show that exercise is as effective as certain medications for treating anxiety and depression
Clinical anxiety affects about 40 million Americans or 18 percent of the population, in any given year and can manifest in a number of ways. They include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, specific phobias, and social anxiety disorder. They all share the physical symptoms of the severe stress response as well as a similar dysfunction in the brain, namely a cognitive misinterpretation of the situation. The common denominator is irrational dread.
Outrunning the Fear
The elegance of exercise as a way to deal with anxiety, in everyday life and in the form of a disorder, is that it works on both the body and the brain. Dr. John Ratey, in his book SPARK, provides these reasons as to why exercise will reduce your anxiety:
It provides distraction. Quite literally, moving puts your mind on something else. Studies have shown that anxious people respond well to any directed distraction — quietly sitting, meditating, eating lunch with a group, reading a magazine. But the antianxiety effects of exercise last longer and carry the other side benefits listed here.
It reduces muscle tension. Exercise serves as a circuit breaker just like beta- blockers, interrupting the negative feedback loop from the body to the brain that heightens anxiety. Back in 1982 a researcher named Herbert de Vries conducted a study showing that people with anxiety have overactive electrical patterns in their muscle spindles and that exercise reduced that tension (just as beta- blockers do).
It builds brain resources. Exercise increases serotonin and norepinephrine both in the moment and over the long term. Physical activity also increases the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA as well as BDNF, which is important for cementing alternative memories.
It teaches a different outcome. One aspect of anxiety that makes it so different from other disorders is the physical symptoms. Because anxiety brings the sympathetic nervous system into play, when you sense your heart rate and breathing picking up, that awareness can trigger anxiety or a panic attack. But those same symptoms are inherent to aerobic exercise — and that’s a good thing. If you begin to associate the physical symptoms of anxiety with something positive, something that you initiated and can control, the fear memory fades in contrast to the fresh one taking shape.
It reroutes your circuits. By activating the sympathetic nervous system through exercise, you break free from the trap of passively waiting and worrying, and thus prevent the amygdala from running wild and reinforcing the danger- filled view of what life is presenting. Instead, when you respond with action, you send information down a different pathway of the amygdala, paving a safe detour and wearing in a good groove.
It improves resilience. You learn that you can be effective in controlling anxiety without letting it turn into panic. The psychological term is self- mastery, and developing it is a powerful prophylactic against anxiety sensitivity and against depression, which can develop from anxiety. In consciously making the decision to do something for yourself, you begin to realize that you can do something for yourself.
It sets you free. Researchers immobilize rats in order to study stress. In people too, if you’re locked down — literally or figuratively — you’ll feel more anxious. People who are anxious tend to immobilize themselves — balling up in a fetal position or just finding a safe spot to hide from the world. Agoraphobics feel trapped in their homes, but in a sense any form of anxiety feels like a trap. The opposite of that, and the treatment, is taking action, going out and exploring, moving through the environment.
Exercise works a lot like Prozac and our other antidepressants and antianxiety drugs. Clinical trials show that exercise is as effective as certain medications for treating anxiety and depression.