The Surprising Link Between Anxiety and Exercise

Most of us have a pretty good idea of what anxiety feels like on a physical level – the fast and shallow breathing, the pounding heartbeat, the sweating… Now, what’s a completely different situation when your body does exactly that? Well, the clue is in the title – when you exercise!

This is yet another example of how our own interpretation of experience changes “the meaning” – from something we dread, to something we relish (or at least tolerate). Personally, I am by no means one of those uncanny, wonderful people who bliss out in the flow of exercise – it’s more a case of coaxing myself to be reasonably regular and just get on with it – but I think we can all agree that five minutes of crunches and squats are preferable to five minutes of a panic attack.

What happens, then, if you reframe the body’s anxiety symptoms as some sort of misplaced exercise response? First of all, you get the chance to acknowledge what is going on: your well-intentioned, caring, prudent brain is detecting or anticipating a threat, is saying “better safe than sorry”, and preparing you for action. Anxiety is meant to be a valuable friend, not an enemy: once you understand what the horrible sensations you’re experiencing are all about, you will have risen out of them enough to be able to implement your preferred strategies, and help yourself back to calm (see previous articles or videos on the Eleventh House Wales YouTube channel for ideas!).

But an alternative strategy that you can apply is to actually go with the flow, by exploiting that misplaced exercise response! So, your brain wants you to act? Very well, let it fulfil that – maybe do a few push-ups or star jumps, or go for a run, or simply do some fast walking! This allows your brain to complete the fight-or-flight cycle: it is now satisfied that you have run away and escaped that threat, and will allow you to return to a calmer state. In its eyes, you are not a cowering, quivering victim anymore – you are now the successful survivor, who can afford to relax.

Research indicates that the anxious response to a perceived danger is significantly lower if you have recently exercised.* This reminds us that regular exercise is an excellent long-term strategy for lowering our everyday anxiety threshold – but you can also add ad-hoc bursts of exercise, whenever needed, to your anxiety toolbox.

*Carek PJ, Laibstain SE, Carek SM. Exercise for the treatment of depression and anxiety. Int J Psychiatry Med. 2011;41(1):15-28. doi: 10.2190/PM.41.1.c. PMID: 21495519.

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