Exercise and anxiety have a bit in common. They both cause increased heart rate and breathing. They both make you sweaty. And you can’t seem to think of much else at the time!
A little on anxiety…
Anxiety is something we all feel, at some point, in some way or another. It may look and feel slightly different for everyone! It’s a natural reaction to a ‘threat’ that happens at a certain point in our bodies stress response. When the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis shift into high gear (you may remember I touched on this in my last blog!).
When you’re preparing for a speech, this is great – because it sharpens your attention so you can rise to the challenge. Completely normal. But if you worry when there’s no real threat, to the point where you can’t function normally, that’s an anxiety disorder.
18% of the population suffers from a clinical anxiety disorder.
A study done in 2004 looked at 54 sedentary college students with generalized anxiety disorder. Split into two groups, one group ran on treadmills at 60-90% of their maximum heart rate. The second group walked. Whilst both groups showed reduced anxiety levels, the rigorous exercise worked more quickly and effectively. Furthermore, students in this group reported less fear of the physical symptoms of anxiety.
So here’s the theory:
When we raise our heart rate and our breathing in the context of exercise, we learn that these physical signs don’t necessarily lead to an anxiety attack. We become more comfortable with our body being aroused, and we don’t automatically assume that the arousal is noxious.
We use exercise to combat the symptoms of anxiety, and thus treat the state. While your level of fitness improves, you chip away at the anxiety trait. Over time, you teach the brain that the symptoms don’t always spell doom and that you can survive. You’re reprogramming the cognitive misinterpretation.
A match made in physiological heaven
How does exercise do this?
As we start using our muscles, the body breaks down fat molecules in the blood stream to fuel them. These free fatty acids compete with tryptophan to catch a ride on our transport proteins, elevating its concentration in the blood stream.
To equalize its levels, tryptophan pushes through the blood brain barrier, and is used as a building block for our old friend serotonin (feel good hormone).
BDNF, which is also released with exercise, also increases levels of serotonin, which enhances our sense of safety.
Moving the body also triggers the release of GABA, which is the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter (and the primary target for most anti-anxiety medications), which interrupts the obsessive feedback loop within the brain.
When our heart starts beating hard, its muscle cells produce a molecule called atrial natriuretic peptide. That puts the brakes on our hyper-aroused state.
Clearly there is a connection between how much you exercise, and how anxious you feel.
Scientists have shown that exercise helps the average person reduce normal feelings of anxiousness – next time you’re feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious, try squeezing in 15-20 minutes of huff and puff exercise and see how you feel after. You be the judge!
Broman-Fulks, Berman & Webster (2004), ‘Effects of aerobic exercise of anxiety sensitivity‘, Journal or Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 42, no. 2, pp. 125-136
Ratey, John J.,Hagerman, Eric. (2008) Spark :the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain New York : Little, Brown,
About the Author
Everybody feels stressed at some point. But how do we deal with it? 75% of Australians admit that stress adversely effects their physical health and 64% report an impact on their mental health (APA, 2014). For 86% of us, watching TV or movies is our chosen coping strategy for stress and only 55% of us are getting an adequate amount of physical activity (Australian Health Survey 2011-12). So exercise, mood and stress; what’s the link? Here’s the science to support why exercise should be our go-to for those stressful situations.
You know those days where you wake up in the morning, a bunch of crazy happens and then you go to sleep (way too late)… Maybe some of this feels familiar; you’re up to your eye balls in reports at work. The kids have basketball training tonight. You forgot to get dinner out. It’s your mum’s birthday next week. You said you would help the school with their fundraiser this Friday. You promised your friend you would catch up for lunch on the weekend. You still haven’t found time to exercise, like you planned. Feeling stressed? How’s your mood?
A Brief Bio About Stress
Stress comes in many shapes and sizes, acute and chronic; social stress, physical stress, metabolic stress… just to name a few.
There is a psychological state of stress, and a physiological response to stress – it’s important to distinguish these. One is the external stressors of life, such as a looming deadline at work. The other is our internal state of stress, like when we feel we are stressed out of our minds and cannot think straight!
I want to talk about how we can manipulate one by manipulating the other.
The body’s stress response is a built-in gift from evolution, without it we wouldn’t be here today. This complex alarm system (the panic button being the amygdala), is more commonly known as the fight of flight response.
I’m going to try and explain how this process actually works in our brain using cute pictures, it gets a bit nerdy, but stick with me.
The Neurophysiology of Stress (the simple version)
Basically, the short version is: our amygdala signals the adrenal gland to release a few different hormones, such as adrenaline, which causes increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. These hormones also act on the pituitary gland which triggers the release of cortisol into our immune system. The amygdala then signals the hippocampus to start recording memories (so we remember to avoid this in future), and the prefrontal cortex assesses whether this is an actual threat requiring action.
Humans are unique in the fact that danger doesn’t have to be clear and present to illicit a stress response, we can create it ourselves. The mind is so powerful we can actually set off our stress response just by imagining we’re in a stressful situation. You see how this can start to get unhealthy…
But just as we can get ourselves into a stressful state, we can get ourselves out.
The purpose of the fight-or-flight response is to mobilise us to act, so physical activity is the natural way to prevent the negative consequences of stress. When we exercise in response to stress, we’re doing what human beings have evolved to do over the past several million years.
Your Prescription for exercise, mood and stress
If I prescribe you 1 x exercise session per day, you should see a reduction in stress symptoms and an improvement in mood immediately…
Why is that?
Now that you’re all over the neurophysiological mechanisms that are behind the stress we feel, how exactly does exercise improve our mood and reduce our stress?
- Exercise triggers the production of more insulin receptors, thus lowering blood glucose levels
- Exercise produces FGF-2 and VEGF which build new capillaries and expand the vascular system in the brain
- Exercise increases BDNF production, which is responsible for neurogenesis: the creation of new neurons
- Exercise increases serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine (feel good hormones!)
And on a physiological level, exercise can improve the stress we feel in our bodies by:
- Relaxing the resting tension of muscle spindles, breaking the stress-feedback loop to the brain
- Increasing the efficiency of the cardiovascular system, lowering blood pressure
Exercise does a whole range of juicy things to our body and our mind, and it’s virtually impossible to impact one without impacting the other – now you see why!
Just keep in mind that the more stress you have, the more your body needs to move to keep your brain running smoothly.
If you’re interested in reading more about this, pick up a copy of Psychiatrist, John Ratey’s book: SPARK; the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. This blog is based on the concepts discussed in Chapter 3; Stress. It’s full of stories and fascinating information about the connections between exercise and your brain, in an easily digestible format.
About the author
Blue Mind: A mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peace, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment.
We can all agree that modern life is tough. We experience chronic stress, struggle with constant monkey mind and are probably all too familiar with directed attention fatigue. We live a lifestyle where we are “always on”, and this can eventually result in burn out, memory problems, poor judgement, anxiety, and depression. Physically, chronic stress damages the cardiovascular, immune, digestive, nervous and musculoskeletal systems. It does this by lowering levels of serotonin and dopamine (our neurotransmitters responsible for making us happy) and leaves us feeling exhausted and down. And yet, the knowledge that our lifestyles have some room for improvement is just another source of stress! “Red Mind” is a term coined by neuroscientist Catherine Franssen, and is described as an “edgy high, characterized by stress, anxiety, fear and maybe even a little bit of anger and despair”. Whilst Red Mind can have its perks and be healthy at times, like everything, it should be experienced in moderation. This blog will show you how exercise in water can provide a much needed balance to “red mind” for your mental health!
Our brains are wired to constantly scan for danger, which makes sense historically. But now we’re faced with busy streets and email alerts, not lions.
Our brains like being around water because there is a high degree of predictability. This allows the amygdala (an emotions centre of the brain) to relax. However, small disturbances such as waves breaking or birds flying past give enough sense of surprise that we receive a pleasurable hit of dopamine. Because of this simultaneous sameness and change, we get a soothing familiarity and stimulating novelty when we look over the water. It’s the perfect recipe for triggering a state of involuntary attention in which the brain’s default network, essential to creativity and problem solving, is activated.
Studies have even shown that being at the beach, where there is an abundance of negatively charged ions in the atmosphere, lowers blood lactate levels and elevates mood.
Blue looks good on you
‘So how do I access my Blue Mind?’ I hear you ask. There is a very fitting quote from poet Sylvia Plath; “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them”.
It seems way too simple, but by simply being around, in, on or under water – we trigger our Blue Mind.
There are now studies that show being immersed in water reduces stress, partly by balancing the flux between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Or that taking a spa bath can significantly lower your salivary cortisol levels. Feeling anxious? Taking a hot 5-minute shower can measurably lower anxiety levels.
So… I can just drink mimosas next to the pool?
Technically yes. But! There’s an extra level of Zen that water can offer you. And the answer has something to do with Exercise.
We’re well aware of the wonderful things exercise does to our brain on a neuro-chemical level, like release endorphins and endocannabinoids (the brain’s natural cannabis-like substances), which reduce the brain’s response to stress and anxiety.
The feel-good effects of swimming have actually been assimilated to the “relaxation response” triggered by yoga. When we swim, our muscles are constantly stretching and relaxing, and this movement is accompanied by deep, rhythmic breathing. All of which put us in a quasi-meditative state. On top of this we have to use a level of cognitive effort to learn and coordinate swimming strokes. This cognitive and aerobic combination can provide the brain with the satisfying stress-reducing feeling of “flow”.
Meet the power couple – Exercise in water for mental health
So when you feel yourself getting stressed, tense and a bit tightly wound why not utilise the powerful effects of exercise AND water?
So why not go for a run along the beach each week? Or go for a swim at your local pool? You could even learn to surf with the kids next weekend? Or how about simply going fishing? Perhaps paddle-boarding is more your style?