Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illnesses in the U.S. with 40 million adults affected. One in five Americans over 18 and one in three teenagers 13 to 18 reported having a recent chronic anxiety disorder. If you’re at work now in a cubicle, look to your left and right, in front of you and behind you… One of you has a chronic anxiety disorder, and this article could be a catalyst for a healthy turnaround.
Anxiety isn’t stress; it’s your mind and body’s reaction to stressful situations. Most people experience it occasionally, but people with chronic anxiety experience intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations, according to the Mayo Clinic. “These feelings of anxiety and panic interfere with daily activities, are difficult to control, are out of proportion to the actual danger and can last a long time.”
You may suffer from chronic anxiety if you have persistent symptoms including nervousness, restlessness, a sense of impending danger, bouts of increased heart rate and rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, and trouble concentrating and sleeping. Clearly, chronic anxiety can be detrimental to your ability to perform your job, enjoy your work, and have a fulfilling and successful career.
If you have these symptoms, of course the first step is to see your doctor. If you are able to exercise, he or she may point to studies tracked by the Anxiety & Depression Association of America that show exercise “is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate.”
What’s Going on Inside Your Brain?
Anxiety floods your brain and central nervous system with adrenaline and cortisol, similar to a fight or flight situation. The role of these neurochemicals is to sharpen your senses and quicken your responses so that you can escape danger. But when this occurs too often and with regularity, your baseline level of anxiety can increase.
Anxiety can also make it hard for your brain to reason rationally because it weakens the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, which (when properly functioning) helps you come up with logical responses. In addition, anxiety can make you hypervigilant to potential threats and can train your brain to hold onto negative memories, leaving you in a persistent state of anxiety. Over time, these chemical reactions in your central nervous system can trigger other serious health consequences including high blood pressure and heart disease. The sooner you can alleviate anxiety, the more likely you are to prevent these serious outcomes.
Key Findings that Suggest Exercise Belongs in Your Daily Plans
When stress and anxiety affects your brain and central nervous system brain, the rest of your body feels the impact. Conversely, studies show, your body can calm your mind through exercise and other physical activities that produce endorphins, neurochemicals that act as natural painkillers. Endorphins are the soldiers you must enlist to defeat stress hormones. The results of doing so often include better sleep, stabilized mood, and decreased tension.
Here are a few key findings:
- People who got regular vigorous exercise are 25% less likely to develop depression or an anxiety disorder over the next five years.
- Running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%.
- Engaging in exercise diverts you from the very thing you are anxious about.
- Getting your heart rate up changes brain chemistry, increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals.
- Exercise activates frontal regions of the brain responsible for executive function, which helps control the amygdala, our reacting system to threats.
- Exercising regularly builds up resources that bolster resilience against stormy emotions.
Tips to Get Started
Psychologists studying how exercise relieves anxiety and depression suggest that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout. A brisk walk can deliver several hours of relief, similar to taking an aspirin for a headache. The key to success is to find activities that you enjoy that get your heart rate up. You may find that certain activities can be more enjoyable with a friend or group, or when you listen to music or podcasts as you exercise. Exercising in nature further lowers stress and anxiety.
Over the longer term and with your doctor’s guidance, set small daily incremental improvement goals and aim to jog, walk, bike, or dance three to five times a week for at least 30 minutes per session. Even if you can’t find 30 minutes, it’s more important to exercise with frequency.
Have you been able to alleviate anxiety through exercise, physical activity, or other means such as mindfulness and better nutrition. Share your experiences with us!