Do you feel anxiety in your body? Exercise can help!

Where is your anxiety? Mostly when we are anxious, we are anxious about something: we have worrying thoughts about a situation, a relationship, work, money, the environment, social situations, online dating, illness, family, other people. The experience of anxiety, feeling anxious though, is physical – how often when you’re anxious do you get butterflies or tension in your stomach? Pain or stiffness in your shoulders or neck, a racing heart, sweating, muscle tension, shortness of breath?


This effect happens because the brain’s response to detecting a threat or risk is to trigger the Fight or Flight Mechanism (FFM): it instructs the body to prepare to literally fight the danger or run away from it: stress hormones are released - breathing and heart rates are elevated to get in more oxygen and distribute it to the working muscles, which contract to prepare for action. But it can go the other way too – sometimes muscles can contract in response to a perceived threat and sensors within them signal the brain which interprets the information before starting the Fight or Flight Mechanism.

Our brains are still using the same systems to detect and respond to danger as our ancestors used tens of thousands of years ago to respond to actual physical threats such as attacks by wild animals. Most of the stressful situations people find themselves in today are not things you can physically run away from or fight and we forget to move. The stress hormones continue to pump round the body, creating the uncomfortable, agitating experience of anxiety.

This gives us a great opportunity to use movement of the body to help relieve anxiety: talking about your anxiety with a therapist can be incredibly helpful – it provides a chance to explore the situations, relationships and problems which worry you to find solutions and other ways of thinking about what is happening. But moving more also really helps:

Any form of cardio exercise such as walking, jogging, running, cycling or swimming reduces anxiety by burning off the stress hormones released by the triggering of the FFM – especially with running, your body is doing exactly what your brain is demanding. As you move, the brain will believe you are actually distancing yourself from the actual or perceived threat and it will begin to relax.

Walking (or even low-intensity jogging or cycling), changes the way we think: if you have ever suddenly had a great idea or solved a problem while walking, you will understand this. The effect is called “hyper-frontality” – chemical changes in the blood, caused by low-intensity cardio exercise, dissolve the barrier between the left brain and the right brain: the left hemisphere of the brain is all about rational thought, logic, language and decision making. The right side is concerned with emotion, feelings, sensation, creativity and the two don’t usually mingle. As the barrier dissolves, ideas and perspectives from the right side are allowed into the left side, helping us find ways out of difficult situations and lessening anxious thoughts.

At higher levels of intensity, such as during a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) class, or when sprinting, you can actually stop thinking: blood is diverted in the body to the working muscles, meaning some functions are switched off: the prefrontal cortex, the thinking, rational area of the brain loses power temporarily, giving you a break from your thoughts and that can be a great relief.

Building your strength, both through weight training and core stability work, is also important: becoming physically stronger can help you feel emotionally stronger and more confident – muscles, remember, can sense threat or risks (things to be worried about), and signal this to the brain, starting episodes of anxiety. As you get stronger physically, this seems to impact on the process, with muscles becoming less “alarmed” by what they detect and sending less anxious signals to the brain.

Strength training with machines, free weights or kettlebells would work as would core-based activities such as Pilates or yoga. Building core strength helps improve your posture too (the way you stand, the way you sit) and this can also build confidence – if you’re sitting as you read this, just take a moment to notice how you are sitting – are you slouched forward, shoulders hunched, back perhaps collapsed?

Check in with how you are feeling as you sit like this and then sit up: imagine a piece of string is pulling your head up to the ceiling – engage your core muscles (your pelvic floor muscles, your abdominals, the muscles to the side of your abdomen and in the lower back. Notice that there is a layer of deep muscles beneath this superficial layer, bring them into play too. Use these muscles to support your back, lifting the vertebrae away from each other. Relax your shoulders, ensure your head is on top of your neck (not to one side, or forward or back.) Notice how you feel now – perhaps you feel a bit safer, more confident?

Breathing also helps – taking the time to breathe deep down into your diaphragm, filling your lungs up, slowing the rate of breathing down, before taking a long breath out of your mouth. (breathe in for a count of three, hold for three, then breathe out for four).

As you breathe in, place a hand on your stomach – on the in-breath, breathe in until you feel your hand rising: if you breathe in deeply and fill your lungs, the diaphragm, a sheet of muscle underneath your rib cage, just below the lungs, will be pushed down, pushing your abdominal muscles outwards. Breathing in this way engages the Parasympathetic Nervous System, (PNS), the part of the Autonomic Nervous System responsible for calming the body down and calming the brain, switching off the FFM. This is why Pilates and yoga are so helpful for anxiety as they build core stability and strength, combining movement with breathing, calming the mind.

Any form of exercise, especially cardio or strength-based exercise, will increase levels of serotonin, endorphins and dopamine in the blood, all of which calm the brain. Exercise also helps us think more clearly, through stimulating release of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which facilitates connections between brain cells. This is how exercise strengthens connections between the brain’s prefrontal cortex and the alarm system, the amygdala, so that the part of the brain which knows that you are safe can communicate with the area which thinks you are at risk and reassure it.

So exercise helps reduce anxiety and working out regularly (150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous exercise, ideally spread out over three to five days) will make a big difference. Psychotherapy is also invaluable in understanding and resolving the origins of your anxiety but you may only meet your therapist once a week, whereas you can exercise as often as you like.

Move more/talk more!

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Written by Andrew Keefe, MA FPC UKCP: Psychotherapist EMDR Therapist Personal Trainer
London WC1V & E3

Andrew Keefe is a Psychodynamic Psychotherapist, EMDR Therapist and Personal Trainer (Level 4, Lower Back Pain Specialist), in private practice in East London & The City. He has special interests in trauma-related chronic pain, working with survivors of sexual abuse, violence, terrorism and birth trauma and using exercise for emotional recovery.

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