Physical Exercise: Relief from Anxiety

Physical exercise has long been touted as one of the best natural ways to improve oneself physically, by both increasing the quality of your body’s condition and fighting off illness. You’d be hard-pressed to find a medical professional out there who doesn’t strongly encourage physical exercise. But exercise goes beyond helping you capture and maintain weight goals or warding off certain diseases. Exercise and mental health go hand in hand. Any time your body is physically active, It’s actually really beneficial for maintaining your mental wellbeing too. Exercise can decrease anxiety and depression.

Michelle’s story

Michelle, a hairstylist, started feeling symptoms of anxiety right after high school. “It started off pretty mild, like it was some kind of normal teenage angst,” she says. “I’d be sharp and short with friends and family, or I’d be nervous about my grades, or I’d feel left out sometimes when I felt like all the girls had boyfriends and I didn’t.”

As graduation came and went, as did college, Michelle felt her symptoms getting worse.
“I hit 22, 23, and I got a job and a growing clientele, and I grew into my skin and didn’t have a shortage of friends or anything,” she continues. “So on the outside, it looked like I should have it together, but on the inside, I was breaking.”

Michelle began to feel increasingly nervous – at home, at work, and at social functions. She felt panicked somehow, like something terrible was about to happen. The more she thought about it, the worse she felt – her heart would beat faster, her palms would get sweaty, and she was left unable to concentrate on anything but her anxiety.

When Michelle turned 30, her husband rented out a hall where a hundred of their friends and family members were invited to celebrate her birthday. A self-described workaholic, Michelle worked all day and drove herself to her party. In the car, on the freeway, she started having difficulty breathing.

“I pulled over on the side of the road and just started hyperventilating,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what to do. I was sobbing and I couldn’t breathe. It was really scary.”

Michelle phoned her mother, who called an ambulance to retrieve her. At the hospital, Michelle was asked if she’d ever been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.  Michelle was relieved there was a name for what she was feeling.

“I didn’t live in a community where mental illness could be anything but schizophrenia or you know, that nervous breakdown you see in the movies,” admits Michelle. “After I left the hospital and I started digesting it, it all made sense.

“It was like, well, if parts of your body can get sick, why can’t your mind?”

Michelle immediately sought the advice of a mental health professional, a local therapist who was close to her age and with whom Michelle felt connected and safe. Her therapist specialized in cognitive behavioral therapy, but also encouraged Michelle to do one more thing: run.

“I think it was the second or third session,” says Michelle, “where she asked me, ‘Do you exercise at all?’ I was like, ‘Oh, not really, but why do you ask?’ She said, ‘What do you think about running?’”

At home that evening, Michelle downloaded a Couch to 5K app on her phone, a program designed to get anyone, no matter how sedentary, to run five kilometers (or 30 minutes straight) in nine weeks. The gradual training didn’t come easy to Michelle, who describes herself as a former couch potato - but the initial rush of happiness that washed over her the first time she ran was enough to get her hooked.

“The first time I finished a 20 minute walk and run was amazing,” she says enthusiastically. “You have no idea just how good it feels the first time you do something like that. So I kept going. And every time, to this day, feels like a success.

“Now, every time I start to feel stress, I know a surefire way to get rid of it is to exercise. I feel like exercise and anxiety can’t coexist, so as long as I choose exercise, I’m keeping my anxiety away.”

Managing anxiety with exercise

Did you know that after about five minutes of exercise, your body already starts feeling relief from symptoms of stress?

Exercise is invaluable for improving your physical condition and mental health. It reduces stress symptoms and anxiety, as well as fatigue. It even improves your focus and concentration, and helps promote sleep. Studies have shown that regular exercise stabilizes your mood, increases your self- esteem and decreases physical and mental tension.

Following are three ways being physically active can help improve your anxiety and alleviate the symptoms.

1. It will improve your self-esteem and leave you feeling refreshed and ready to take anything on. Exercise promotes mental health, and it greatly enhances your self-esteem too. When you have high self-esteem, you’re less likely to experience or participate in negative things like violence, addiction, eating disorders, low performance at work or poor academic achievement. When you have high self-esteem, you feel better about yourself and the world around you.

If you’re new to working out, you might find it a challenge to get up and go at first. But many people report that they always feel better after a workout, and that good feeling encourages them to do it again and again.

There are many ways to fit exercise in to even the busiest schedule, and there are so many different forms of excited that you’re sure to find one that’s going to get you excited! Here are some ideas:

Walking around the neighborhood or park
Rock climbing
Dancing (ballroom, ballet, jazz, tap, among others)
LARPing (Live Action Role Playing)
Martial arts
Playing with your kids
Play a sport (pick one, any one – tennis, basketball, volleyball, baseball… the list goes on!)
Active video games, like Wii Fit or Just Dance on Xbox
Bike to work
You can also invest in a Fitbit or some other type of activity tracker that tracks the steps you take all day to keep you accountable, or you can ask your Health and Safety committee at work if you might be able to have a sit/stand workspace in your office.

There are other things you can do to help stay active and feel great about yourself that don’t look like actual exercise. Here are some ideas:

1. Instead of meeting friends for coffee, suggest meeting to do something fun and physical and atypical, like playing pickleball, Frisbee golf, or foot golf. Not only will you be active, you’ll be participating in something that brings you and your friends together.

2. Pretend you’re a kid again. Do the things you used to love to do as a child, as silly as it may be. Go play on a playground, or build sandcastles, or jump rope by yourself or with a group. This won’t feel like exercise, it’ll be silly, and it’ll probably make you laugh – which is great therapy too.

3. Join a recreational league at a community centre. These kinds of leagues are often filled with people who just want to get out and have fun, as opposed to playing competitively. There may be badminton leagues, softball leagues, or even bocce ball (an Italian ball sport). You’ll be getting exercise and you’ll get to meet lots of new people!

4. Go geocaching. Ever heard of this? Geocaching is a recreational activity that takes place outside, where you use a GPS or mobile device to hide and find “caches” or containers marked by coordinates. There are geocaches all over the world. Basically, you register for a free membership on a geocaching app, visit the hide and seek page, enter your zip code, choose any geocache and use your device to help you find it. Once you’ve signed the logbook to report you’ve found it, put it back where you got it so someone else can find it. You’ll be so busy looking for these little treasures you won’t even realize you’ve been walking.
2) You’ll lower your blood pressure. The Mayo Clinic says that exercise is a “drug-free approach to lowering high blood pressure.” How?

Well, regular and quality physical activity makes your whole body stronger, but in particular, your heart. The stronger your heart is, the better it can pump your blood. When your heart doesn’t have to work so hard to pump your blood, your arteries don’t have to work so hard either, so your blood pressure lowers. The Mayo Clinic also reports that for some people who struggle with high blood pressure, medication isn’t even necessary – getting enough exercise is enough to make positive change.

Fortunately, the exercises you can do to alleviate your symptoms of stress (like jogging, dancing, walking or even climbing stairs) are the same exercises that will help lower your blood pressure. There are no special or specific exercises to do that – anything that increases your heart rate, as well as your breathing rate, is considered an aerobic activity, and therefore is beneficial to lowering your blood pressure.

If you’re curious about weight training, and have heard that it can actually increase your blood pressure, you’re right. It’s dependent on how much weight you lift, and the increase can be significant. However, weightlifting as an exercise can be, over the long term, beneficial to your health. If you can add strength training exercises to your cardiovascular regimen, using good form and breathing techniques, and using lighter weights more times (as opposed to fewer repeats using heavier weights).

If you’re new to working out and have a history of high blood pressure, it’s probably a good idea to see your doctor first and make sure your exercise program is right for you. If you’re overweight, smoke, are older than 55, have had a heart attack or feel dizziness or discomfort when working out, definitely see your doctor before starting anything new.

3) You’ll decrease your symptoms of stress and improve your overall mood.
When Michelle began running, “the impact on my mood was as effective as any therapy session,” she admits. “I feel like it keeps me from falling back. It’s my preventative medication and my healing.”

With regular exercise, you’ll increase your energy levels and distract you from what’s currently worrying you or stressing you out. Exercise helps defend against the cycle of negative thought patterns, which if left unattended, can feed your anxiety and make you feel worse and worse over time.

“(When I’m exercising), I feel in control, which makes me feel like I’ve got this (anxiety), and it doesn’t have me,” adds Michelle. “Every step I make is a challenge. That makes me feel so good. I can’t do without it now.

“It’s just a bonus that I’m physically stronger and more fit now. It’s really what it’s done to my brain chemistry, I think, that’s made it so awesome for me.”

By exercising, you’re increasing serotonin levels, which are responsible for regulating your mood, appetite and sleep, and reduces the immune system chemicals which might be making your anxiety worse. Exercising also increases your endorphins levels, which make you happier and more relaxed. Beyond that, exercise is a focused activity, which distracts you from your stress and helps you feel accomplished and satisfied.

Another tip: exercise outdoors

No matter where you exercise, you’re reaping the benefits. But if you exercise outside in the sunlight, you’re getting an extra boost.

Some studies have reported that outdoor exercise increases a person’s enthusiasm, pleasure and overall sense of wellness. This is likely because of a number of factors.

Vitamin D – something we get from the sun – helps fight disease and protects us from illnesses including heart conditions and depression.

Light is a natural mood lifter.

Nature is also a mood booster. It’s been said that a walk in the park has helped children with hyperactivity disorders calm down, and that exposing your body to plant life actually improves your immunity. Some scientists believe that certain chemicals from plants actually protect us from some viruses.  

For more information about how physical exercise can alleviate symptoms of anxiety, contact one of our trained therapists today for a free 15-minute consultation.

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