Yet Another Reason to Exercise…Anxiety Relief!

Do not accept any of my words on faith, Believing them just because I said them. Be like an analyst buying gold, who cuts, burns, And critically examines his product for authenticity. Only accept what passes the test By proving useful and beneficial in your life. The Buddha (Jnanasara-samuccaya)

Hopefully what I bring to you has some benefit and provided you with different points of view to consider. But remember, mine is only one perspective among many. It is up to you to question everything and do any research you need to fill gaps and establish your own truth.

In that vein, we’ve talked about how impactful exercise can be in alleviating depression. It makes sense it will also help decrease stress. But it also can provide a tremendous impact on anxiety: intensity, number of occurences, and duration. Current research (see “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by John J. Ratey) is showing powerful support for this.

First, anxiety is basically your mind and body’s way of preparing you to deal with stress – positive or negative. Whether it be that crucial presentation at work or being cautious around large, dangerous animals (NY City Taxis!), anxiety gets you prepared to handle the situation. When it becomes a problem is when the chemical switch that controls anxiety-let’s call it “preparedness” has trouble turning off, especially after extrememly stressful, long term, and traumatic situations, leaving a a persistent level of worry and fear. This can escalate to phobias, panic attacks, and even social isolation. Why? Because you are recieiving too much external and internal stimuli/information for your brain to process so you become overwhelmed from info overload. Typically at this point, and many times before this, a person will go to a doctor for relief and get either medication, talk therapy, or a combination.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, we are all different, with different brain chemistries, so a person may go through many medications with little or no relief, or just one and they feel worlds better. The issue remains in addressing the cause of the anxiety disorder and long term treatment. Xanax and other benzos aimed at anxiety can be habit forming in some people and may take quite awhile to wean off of. They also may not address the entire problem including triggers and certain anxiety producing situations. In which case, you have break-through anxiety, which is not fun to say the least. Talk therapy may help with this, but can be time consuming.

So, why the build up? You say you know all this already? But did you know that exercise, especially sessions of high intensity cardio over time, can help alleviate anxiety symptoms naturally? In “Spark” the author cites studies comparing a group who did 6 sessions of 20 minute high intensity cardio over 2 weeks versus the control and found a significant change in the study group over the control. You are literally working the anxiety producing chemicals into balance! Continuing to do the cardio over time not only helps with generalized anxiety, but also self-imposed isolation and social anxiety, allowing one patient to literally “get her life back” after crippling anxiety resulted in divorce, losing custody of her children, and becoming a recluse, cut off from family and friends.

On a personal note, anxiety has been my achilles heel for years, resulting in no longer being able to work and almost complete social isolation. It began as a response to dealing with a very ill parent without support and over time became more and more debilitating with every new trauma. It got so bad I had to call my therapist every day before I could leave the house to go to work, it was incredibly difficult to drive, I no longer saw friends, and became so ineffective at work (consistently overwhelmed and overmedicated) that I was forced to leave. I had been doing some yoga for about a year and walking periodically but it helped more with the depression than the anxiety. I was on 8mg of Xanax and a zombie.

Thankfully, I started mood charting almost 2 years ago.  Comparing the last 4 months where I have been doing at least 2 sessions of cardio weekly, if not more, to last year was eye opening! The incidents of anxiety are a tenth of what they were at this time last year and, looking over the last few months, my sleep has improved considerably as well as general emotional stability. I am stable for weeks at a time, instead of days, and my ability to cope, handle stressful situations, and be able to socialize has improved dramatically. WalMart is still a nightmare – but isn’t it for everybody! The change is just amazing and the research supports that it continue to show improvement over time with continued activity. And most importantly, I’ve been able to knock down the “doping” meds so am more alert, active, yet still able to get good sleep and stability.

Today’s Tip:

There are more resources to help you deal with persistent anxiety than stars in the sky! On iTunes, the “Anxiety Slayer” podcast has short but excellent exercises, the book “The Mindful Way Through Anxiety” and “Anxiety Workbook” are terrific, and there are entire sites, bulletin boards, and other forms of support you can access right at home. I know how devastating anxiety can be, how it shrink a life to a tiny dot – but there is help out there. If you need to you can do your therapy sessions over the phone and have someone drive you to the doctor. And finally, you can order cardio dvd’s for free from the library and do your cardio sessions at home until you’re ready to venture out. Don’t let excuses get in the way of working to get your life back – or keeping it from spiralling any further out of control! Like I will say over and over again, you are worth the effort!!

P.S. For more examples and suggestions, read “Spark”!

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