Yes, exercise helps decrease anxiety. Working up a good sweat can decrease anxiety. Natural endorphins are released into your brain after exercise, so this gives you the feeling of a natural ‘high.’ And when you are anxious, feeling good helps you to address your problems better. Exercise improves self-esteem and general well-being, and helps to distract you from your anxious thoughts. A recent comprehensive review found that exercise was effective for anxiety as an adjunct treatment (Jayakody et al., 2014). Many psychiatrists recommend exercise to their anxious patients as part of the behavioral therapy component of the treatment plan.
Just by increasing your activity and physical exercise levels, you can have a big impact on your anxiety by:
- Increasing production of endorphins which gives you a feeling of well-being
- Distracting you away from your anxious thoughts
- Having fun
- Having a sense of achievement
- Increasing your motivation to do more
- Interacting with people
- Improving physical fitness
- Decreasing fatigue
- Using up energy from the adrenaline from anxiety
- Stimulating appetite, to nourish yourself for recovery
- Helping you to think more clearly
Exercise increases endorphins, a neurotransmitter, in your brain. This gives you a feeling of well-being and improved mood.
When you are exercising and focusing on your body movements, it distracts you from worrying about stressors or anxiety-provoking thinking. The more you exercise, the less time you spend on thinking, and the less anxious you will feel.
It is important to have just plain fun…this is the best way to distract you from your thoughts and worries. Exercise can be fun, especially of you mix up your exercise routine to include fun environments and situations, like group walks in nature, joining a running club, or working out with a partner. While you are having fun, you already forgot what you got so worked up for in the first place.
When you get out there and exercise, you have actually done something, as you were most likely avoiding and isolating yourself at home, doing nothing. Exercise gives you a physical feeling of well-being, and also gives you a mental satisfaction in having done something that is good for you and productive.
When you exercise, your sense of achievement for having done something active makes you want to do more. You start to feel good about yourself and your self-esteem improves…all because you started to exercise.
Exercise leads to more interaction with people at the gym, or people you meet while on a walk or run. We are social beings, so social interaction helps you to connect with other people. Fellowship with others helps you to feel connected and makes you feel like you are part of something larger…this makes you less anxious. Isolation and having no social interactions makes you more anxious and depressed.
Exercise helps to improve your overall physical fitness, which helps you to recover from anxiety. Anxiety tends to make you less physically fit, as you stop doing activities, isolate, and have worsening diet.
Anxiety releases adrenaline into the bloodstream, which is associated with numerous physical symptoms, including increased heart rate, increased breathing, dilated pupils, muscle tension, tingling sensations in the arms and legs, and butterflies in the stomach. This is known as the fight or flight response, to help deal with danger in the environment. However, with anxiety, the danger is more in our heads and how we think about a situation, so the fight or flight response in anxiety is not helpful and not adaptive. Our bodies are not meant to be in that fight or flight response on a chronic, long term basis, so our bodies take a beating and start to fatigue and break down. Chronic anxiety is not healthy for the mind or body. But exercise helps to decrease fatigue by decreasing anxiety symptoms and improving overall physical fitness.
When you have anxiety, then adrenaline is released into the bloodstream. This sets in motion the fight or flight response, where the body prepares for fighting or running. All this energy is revving up and ready to go, but it is not discharged, as the danger is in your head. So you spend your time in this hypervigilant, Code Red state, but this only serves to fatigue the body with highly tensed muscles. Exercise helps to discharge and use up all this pent-up energy from anxiety.
Exercise helps to stimulate appetite, as many calories are burned with physical activity. As such, the appetite increases, and this overcomes the anorexic effects of anxiety. To recover from anxiety, replacing nutrients and calories are important.
Exercise helps you to be clearer in your thinking. Exercise has meditative effects, as you tend to focus on repetitive body movements, instead of repetitive maladaptive thinking. This helps you to think more clearly, as you spend less time with maladaptive, anxiety-inducing thoughts. In summary, exercise is helpful for decreasing anxiety. As part of a comprehensive treatment plan, exercise is an important adjunct treatment for anxiety. For more information on exercise and anxiety, read my book on anxiety, Anxiety Protocol can help to eradicate your anxiety.