How to reduce anxiety through exercise
What is anxiety? You often hear people say that they are anxious about an upcoming speech, test, meeting. As Dr. Ratey (author of Spark) writes, these are normal responses to upcoming events. However this becomes cause for concern when you start to feel a general sense of dread and worry on a continual basis and it begins to interfere with your daily routine.
In Canada, 12% of the population suffer from some form of an anxiety disorder. This disorder comes in a variety of shapes and sizes including generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. Ratey talks about anxiety as a cognitive misinterpretation – we feel a fear or worry that is out of proportion to the actual threat or danger. Exercise helps to change this misinterpretation.
So what is going on chemically? Well, quite a lot.
When we exercise we need fuel. Our bodies begin to break down fat molecules and in doing so, release free fatty acids (FFAs). FFAs compete with the well-known tryptophan for slots on transport proteins, which increases the level of tryptophan in the blood. This essential amino acid, pushes its way through the blood brain barrier (a very tough thing to get through) and once inside the brain acts as a building block for serotonin. Serotonin is an important mood and behaviour regulator.
When you exercise you trigger the release of gammaaminobutyric acid (GABA) – your brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter (NT). Ratey mentions that this is the NT is the primary target for most of our anti-anxiety medications. The increase in this NT is very helpful as it interrupts the obsessive feedback loop within the brain that characterizes most forms of anxiety, explains Ratey.
Atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) – which I mentioned in the stress post – also comes into play. When the heart is beating hard, it releases ANP which makes its way up to brain to regulate the stress response. The system responsible for your stress response is the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. When stressed or anxious it is this axis that is responsible for the release of various neurotransmitters and hormones, causing a cascade effect that is difficult to stop.
It is important to note that exercise isn’t the solution for everyone and in many cases works in addition to a drug or therapy. I am not a doctor, nor a psychologist and therefore am not encouraging one treatment over another as everyone’s biology works differently. It is important to discuss any change in activity with your doctor prior to engaging in it – especially if you are on medication.
While you may not have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, you have likely experienced feelings of anxiety. Not matter where it stems from, exercise can most definitely help. So the next time you have an upcoming meeting, interview, or presentation and are feeling worried or anxious about it, get up and get active. Exercise will relieve muscle tension, boost your energy, and sharpen your focus.