The Benefits of Exercise for Managing Anxiety
Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. You might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The feelings can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships.
People with generalised anxiety disorder display excessive anxiety or worry for months and face several anxiety related symptoms, which include:
- Restlessness or feeling wound-up or on edge
- Being easily fatigued
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty controlling the worry
- Sleep problems (difficulty falling or staying asleep or restless, unsatisfying sleep)
So, what is going on hormonally? Let’s delve a little deeper.
Poorly functioning hormones can be a contributing factor to the onset of anxiety. It can be caused almost exclusively by hormonal imbalances, but more commonly a combination of hormones and previous mental health issues or nothing to do with hormones at all.
To have a better understanding it may be beneficial to take a closer look at how the hormones – cortisol, estrogen/testosterone and thyroid are contributing.
- Stress Hormone (Cortisol) – mental and physical stress releases cortisol. Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands as part of the fight or flight mechanism. The fight-or-flight response is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. When excess cortisol is released the production of the hormone is increased leading to anxiety.
- Sex Hormones (Estrogen/Progesterone/Testosterone) – unbalanced estrogen, progesterone and testosterone levels have been linked to anxiety. For women, the fluctuating hormone levels during the premenstrual part of the cycle, peri-menopause and menopause are all events where estrogen levels are higher therefore anxiety is prevalent. Low testosterone can contribute to changes in physical and emotional health. Low sex drive and decreased bone and muscle mass are common which can lead to anxiety. Progesterone is a natural inhibitor of the release of serotonin and dopamine (happy hormones). When progesterone levels are low, mood and behavior is compromised causing anxiety.
- Thyroid Hormone – an overactive and underactive thyroid function may contribute to anxiety. Hyperthyroidism (overactive) speeds up the body’s metabolism in a way that causes the entire sympathetic nervous system to be more active thus putting the body under stress. Hypothyroidism (underactive) can be diagnosed by high TSH, resulting in the thyroid glands failing to produce enough hormones. This deficiency causes the body’s metabolic processes to ‘slow down’. The instability and lower energy levels contribute to mood changes, therefore driving the development of anxiety.
It’s often difficult to pinpoint exactly what causes anxiety as hormonal imbalance may have caused the anxiety or the anxiety may have caused the hormonal imbalance, but either way, through an improved diet and exercise regime, the symptoms can be eased and controlled.
Exercise can be a key to managing anxiety.
How can exercise help manage the symptoms of anxiety?
Regular physical exercise is a simple and effective means of reducing stress.
Exercise is the outlet for the body when it’s in the fight or flight state. Exercise releases the natural chemicals, such as adrenalin and thyroxin that accumulate during stress. Exercise relieves chronic muscle tension, reduces insomnia and decreases depression and anxiety by more rapidly metabolising these chemicals into the bloodstream.
When we exercise, endorphins, serotonin and dopamine are released and are known as the ‘happy hormones’.
- Endorphins – are chemicals released by the body and interact with the receptors in your brain to reduce the perception of pain. Anaerobic exercise helps activate the bodies natural painkillers to cope with chronic pain.
- Serotonin – is the chemical responsible for maintaining mood balance. Serotonin is produced when engaging in aerobic exercise and the effect lingers.
- Dopamine – is a pleasure hormone that is stimulated when we achieve a goal. Dopamine levels rise together with serotonin when we exercise.
Here are some Anxiety Self-Help strategies you can incorporate into your daily life to help reduce the symptoms:
- Exercise daily – 30 mins walking, something a bit more vigorous or a relaxing yoga class. Exercise improves your mood, alertness, concentration and energy levels.
- Eat well – food cravings are usually a reaction to stress, anxiety or depression. So a better diet can help control how you feel.
- Deep breathing exercises – inhale for 5 counts and breathe out for 10 repeating the word ‘relax’ as you breathe out. Make sure you breathe into your stomach and not your chest.
- Stress management techniques eg. Meditation – by bringing yourself back into the present moment and shifting your awareness to the now, helps reduce your blood pressure, slows your heart rate and decreases your breathing rate.
- Muscle relaxation techniques – bring your attention to different parts of the body that feel tense and mindfully relax them.
- Massage – having a massage once a week or fortnight can help reduce stress hormones and increase the happy hormones ‘endorphins’.
For more detailed information on the type of exercise and intensity do not hesitate to contact an Accredited Exercise Physiologist who can guide you through finding what is right for you.
You never know – being more active may be the change you need to live a more stress free life.