Can you really run away from your anxiety?

Clinical Psychologist at Bupa Australia
09 October 2016

There’s no denying that exercise can be good for us, but can it also have an effect on our mental health? Can we actually pound the pavement toward less stress and anxiety?

Anxiety is an issue that lots of people struggle with on a regular basis. In the UK, around five in 100 people battle with anxiety. If you’re finding it tough, it can help to remember that you’re not alone.

Jogger with red sneakers

What does anxiety feel like?

For some people, struggling with anxiety can often feel like they’re about to have a heart attack. You might recognise that your chests get tight, your heart rate increases, you sweat a lot, and you may get stomach aches and sometimes feel dizzy. Your skin can feel really sensitive, and you may struggle to eat and find it hard to sleep. It can take over your body – physically and emotionally.

How does it affect your daily life?

Anxiety can often make you want to withdraw from activities that you previously enjoyed, and in particular, exercise. Anxiety can leave you feeling drained, and when you’re in the depths of it, exercise is usually the last thing you probably feel like doing.

But what if it’s actually a good thing for you right at that moment?

Lots of research has been carried out on the general benefits of exercise, but more and more research is being done on the role that exercise can play with your mental health. Some studies, for example, show that exercise can have a positive impact on your anxiety and overall wellbeing.

Making symptoms of anxiety less scary

The physical sensations of anxiety can feel downright scary. But exercising regularly and experiencing some of those same feelings, such as a racing heart and sweating, can help provide a safe and positive exposure to some of the symptoms of anxiety. Eventually, it can help you become desensitised to some of the symptoms you previously found scary. While it’s uncomfortable, you’ll be able to see that these symptoms aren’t always dangerous, and as a result, exercise then helps to reduce your anxiety. Psychologists call this the ‘extinction model’, and it has shown particular benefits for panic attacks and panic disorder.

Having control over your actions and your anxiety symptoms gives you more confidence that you can handle and cope with your anxiety. This is something that can really help you manage your anxiety levels.

Building up your positive feelings

Exercise has shown a number of positive benefits such as greater endurance, enhanced capabilities and less pain, therefore enabling you to feel more effective when you workout. These positive feelings all feed into feeling able to handle problems and cope with them, which can then help combat anxiety issues.

You don’t even have to have severe or anxiety for a long time for exercise to make a positive impact. In a review of multiple studies exploring the effects of aerobic exercise on anxiety, researchers found that exercise helped lower the levels of anxiety in both those with severe or long-term anxiety and in people who had anxiety in a less severe form. In some instances, exercise (both aerobic and anaerobic) was as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT); a type of talking therapy that is an effective treatment for anxiety.

Working out with other people

Another important factor is having others supporting you to keep up your exercise routines. When there are people around you who help keep you on track and offer encouragement and motivation, you’re more likely to stick to exercise. And that in turn leads to a positive impact on lowering your anxiety levels. In fact, social support in general is great for keeping you on track in life.

Is exercise better than medicines?

Does this mean we can throw out all medications and therapies and just use exercise to feel good?

Not quite. While research has found that moderate exercise can have a positive effect on people with anxiety, exercise complements traditional medication and behavioural therapy regimes, rather than replaces them.

While you might not be able to outrun anxiety entirely, exercise can be an important part of your treatment and recovery. One of the big things we all need to understand is that it’s not about outrunning our anxiety, it’s about understanding it and learning what activities we can do to help manage it.

Dr Sasha Lynn
Clinical Psychologist at Bupa Australia

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