Regular exercise can ease anxious feelings and lower the risk of panic attacks.
When you’re suffering with anxiety, the very last thing you probably feel like doing is working up a sweat. But you’ll be surprised at the role exercise can play in helping to right-size fears, slow down that worrying, and divert panic attacks.
Exercise helps to manage anxiety in several ways. ‘It’s believed physical exercise uses up excess adrenaline in people who experience anxiety, therefore reducing anxious thoughts,’ says Nicky Lidbetter, Chief Executive of Anxiety UK. ‘And when undertaken as part of a group or club, exercise can engender a sense of belonging – again, something we know contributes to wellbeing.’
Exercise has also been found to alter the activity of vital brain chemicals, although the research is still in early stages. ‘We know that exercise can, and does, alter brain chemicals such as endocannabinoids, GABA and glutamate, helping to improve both anxiety and depression,’ says Dr Lynne Drummond, Consultant Psychiatrist and Senior Lecturer with South West London and St George’s NHS Mental Health Trust. ‘But exactly how it does this isn’t known for sure at this time.’
So how exactly should you use fitness to help your head? Follow our top tips when it comes to exercising with anxiety:
✔️ Tailor your trainer-time to your temperament
Don’t hesitate to shop around to find a sweat solution. Tackling the tarmac may prove joyless but a Zumba class could end up ticking multiple mental health boxes. The latter’s quite likely – this study published in the Human Kinetics Journals found Zumba significantly improved the psychological wellbeing of healthy women.
‘It’s horses for courses. Some people will get a real lift from the social side of running in a group or attending a class, while for others that lift may come from solitary time on the tarmac,’ agrees Dr Drummond.
✔️ Remember exercise intensity is individual
You may find that a high octane spinning session acts as a huge mood booster, not to mention a great distraction (that great big circulation boost will certainly help you to feel more optimistic and aid clearer thinking). But there’s a strong case for the less intensive workouts too:
‘If you look at the research, low intensity like Pilates and yoga work well for anxiety,’ says Dr Drummond. Nicky Lidbetter agrees, saying that ‘Focusing solely on calming the mind, and the movements of your body, is very beneficial to people experiencing anxiety.’
✔️ Try to avoid your workout acting as a trigger
You know the scenario: you’ve fought palpitations and a racing head to get yourself to the gym, then 20 minutes in you’re wondering where you’ve gone wrong.
‘Some anxiety sufferers can misinterpret the normal physical sensations that exercise induces, eg increased heart rate, as being dangerous. Cognitive behavioural therapy(CBT) can be helpful in such instances,’ advises Lidbetter.
Need some DIY CBT for the gym? Stick with your workout, lower the intensity if necessary, breathe deeply, focus on your physical environment (instead of the content of your racing thoughts) – and the intensity should fade within 15 minutes.
✔️ Baby steps are best
Hurtling head first into a HIIT routine may not be your best bet for sustainable success. Not only do you run the risk of injury and fatigue, setting – and striving for – overly ambitious goals, whether mental or physical, might prove to be a flawed formula.
‘Setting yourself a punishing goal, falling short, then giving yourself a hard time is to be avoided at all costs,’ says Dr Drummond. ‘Learn to crawl and then walk before you run. You need to be patient and see the bigger picture – look forward, over time, to moveforward.’
✔️ Become your own PT
Having a bad day? Try not confuse the need to adapt your routine with total avoidance. ‘When experiencing anxiety it’s really important to know the difference between feeling too anxious to exercise and avoiding exercise altogether,’ says Lidbetter. ‘If you usually run, but are feeling particularly anxious, don’t force yourself to meet your usual target. But try not to skip your session altogether.
‘Instead, find a manageable goal for the day, such as a short walk or jog,’ she adds. ‘That way, you haven’t avoided the exercise that usually helps, but neither have you made it worse by forcing a more rigorous routine.’
✔️ Know your food friends – and foes
It’s all about balance, balance and more balance when it comes to nutrition and your nerves, maintains Dr Drummond. ‘If you suffer with anxiety, you NEED to have a healthy diet and eat regularly.’
And you’d be wise to err on the side of caution when it comes to that pre-cardio coffee: ‘Skipping meals and glugging coffee is a great way to set your nerves right on edge. Without a doubt, caffeine will worsen panic and anxiety. When you’re running around fuelled by coffee, your adrenaline’s going to be sky high which is an anxiety no-no.’
The take-home message? ‘By all means have the odd treat, but as a general rule, stick to good quality protein, bundles of fruit and veg and other good quality carbs. Making sure you’re as fit and healthy as possible can help as you tackle mental health issues.’
Mental health support
If you are feeling anxious or depressed, for additional support try one of the following resources:
- Anxiety UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.
- The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.
- Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.
- CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.