Chances are good that you, or someone you know, is dealing with anxiety. One in five Americans over 18, and one in three teenagers 13 to 18. See how moving your body more can help make a difference.
I was in a bathroom gasping for air, hoping no one would walk in and ask me what was wrong or if they could help. I had never been in a situation like that before. I had one test that would change the course of the next 12 months. Continue on in the program or repeat a whole year of grad school because of this one test. So there I was in the bathroom 15 minutes away from taking that test, panicking. Some people live with panic, anxiety, and fear regularly. And it shrinks their world. Because when they leave their safe area, they can spiral as their brain is ready to see fear everywhere. Living in this fear prevents them from living the life they were meant for and living a life of possibilities.
Some super cool research shows that exercise can be extremely helpful as a treatment option for anxiety. How so? Well let’s dig into all those interesting science facts and take an adult magic school bus trip to our brains.
Anxiety: The Breakdown
Anxiety is a natural reaction to a threat that you see as fearful. Everyone has felt the effects of this reaction. You get that uncomfortable feeling when you’re about to give a speech, facing a rampaging emu, or giving the birds and the bees talk to your child. When situations like these or worse occur, your sympathetic nervous system takes over. Your sympathetic nervous system is the one that helps you move quickly when a bear attacks or you see a young child with a permanent marker heading to your couch.
When your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, your heart rate speeds up, and you shunt blood away from digesting your food and shift that blood to your muscles. Those muscles also start to tense up, preparing for action. While discussing sex with your child might not be as stressful as running away from a small ostrich-like bird, your nervous system senses your fear and reacts similarly. If you find that explaining sex to your kids was a breeze, you should look into coaching others through it, as most parents start getting heart palpitations thinking about it. However, the fear response in anxiety disorder is when your brain gets stuck in an emotional worst-case scenario loop.
People with a diagnosed anxiety disorder have debilitating fear when there’s no real threat. Clinical anxiety affects about 40 million Americans or 18% of the population in any given year and only a small percentage of them get treatment. There are different types of anxiety and panic disorders, but they all share the physical symptoms of that intense fear response by the sympathetic nervous system.
This is Your Brain on Anxiety
In brain terms, fear is the memory of danger. When someone suffers from anxiety disorder, the brain replays that memory forcing them to live in that fear repeatedly, getting stuck in a fear loop. The memory can be triggered by an image, a feeling, a smell or a sensation like having tense muscles. Any of these can start them down a very unfortunate memory lane. The fear loop response is the fault of a little part of the brain shaped like an almond called the amygdala. The word amygdala is Greek for almond, so now you are learning about anxiety and Greek! Go you!
Now back to the topic at hand. The amygdala’s job is to get multiple systems going when we have a fear response. In anxiety disorders, the ‘all clear, no danger here’ signal doesn’t work like normal. This is because the connections in the brain almond (amygdala) telling the body to stay in a fear response loop are stronger than those telling it to stop. They are stronger because the nerve cells that the amygdala controls have been used more, so they are stronger.
In brain terms, the more nerves are used, the more the brain makes it easier for the signals to travel quicker and faster through nerve upgrades. That is super helpful when we learn how to walk, add or read. The speed of the connections in anxiety disorders ‘stay in the fear response loop’ is racing in a formula one car on asphalt, and the ‘calm down’ signal is racing on a dirt track.
However, the brain has plasticity, meaning connections can be made, unmade, and remade. The brain is moldable, and you can strengthen connections or make them weaker. We can change the brain. To disrupt anxiety disorder, we need to get the amygdala to calm the f#@) down and train it to stay that way. How do we do that? OH MY GOSH, I AM SO EXCITED YOU ASKED!! I literally am writing this whole post just to get to this part because this is the good stuff
The Case for Exercise Calming the Brain
When we exercise, the body lowers the muscles’ resting tension, helping the body feel more relaxed and less tense. This decrease in tension can interrupt the anxiety feedback loop in the brain. However, exercise has more tricks up its sleeve for helping those with anxiety. Exercise increases the release and production of serotonin. Serotonin plays several roles in your body, including influencing learning, memory, and happiness. Serotonin is made from the essential amino acid tryptophan. Without tryptophan, there is no serotonin to be had. Exercise increases the amount of tryptophan that makes it into the brain, AND that increase sticks around after you are done exercising. But wait, there’s more.
My last post discussed how exercise causes new brain cells to form. Specifically, there is a noted increase in the number of new cells in the hippocampus. Besides having a funky name, the hippocampus plays a critical role in forming, organizing, and storing memories. A huge issue in anxiety disorder is that the emotional almond of the brain (amygdala) causes those with anxiety to repeatedly play fear memories. However, getting more connections in the hippocampus with exercise will help us create new nerves to make new memories that we want to relive.
Many studies show that aerobic exercise significantly relieves anxiety disorder symptoms, but exercise also helps the average person reduce normal feelings of anxiety. Those would be the feeling I got before taking that test that would determine if I was in graduate school for two or more years. A 198-person study measured exercise’s physical and mental effects in a group of Chilean high school students for nine months. In the exercise group that got 90 minutes of exercise three times a week, the anxiety score decreased by 13.7%. The group that received no exercise outside of a really long form to fill out several times during the study had a decrease in self-rated anxiety of 2.8%.
Bottom line exercise helps us all to control the stormy moments of life. It helps to divert you from feeling overly nervous and anxious about an upcoming test, a big presentation, or an important meeting. It also helps us control the ‘all clear’ signal by getting the front part of the brain and the hippocampus overriding the emotional almond (amygdala) controlling your thoughts.
DIG Deep Action Steps:
Get Deliberate: Have something that will cause some anxiety at work or school? Try going up and down the stairs right before your presentation or test, or schedule a workout so you can get a good sweat on without being late. If you believe you have an anxiety disorder, meet with a mental wellness provider because there is no such thing as getting too much help from other mentally healthy adults.
Get Inspired: Write down how you feel when you are anxious and how do you act towards those you love. Use this as your inspiration for changing how you deal with your anxiety.
Get Going: Start making exercise something you schedule in your week. Write down the first two emotions you feel once it is done. Use that as motivation for staying consistent.