How Exercise Treats Anxiety and Prevents Anxiety Attacks

Have you every how exercise scientifically helps you treat your anxiety disorder? Here is a study that explains what exercise does to your body to improve your mood and overall mental health.

The Studies

Several studies have demonstrated short bouts of aerobic exercise as effective in reducing high levels of anxiety sensitivity (AS; the propensity to fear anxiety sensations based on the appraisal that they will lead to catastrophic consequences a trait characteristic of most anxiety disorders. Each study used a similar protocol comprising six sessions of aerobic exercise over a 2-week period. Exercise resulted in significant AS reductions compared to no exercising and waitlist control, and significant AS reductions among both high- and low intensity exercisers. Moreover, the magnitude of AS reduction was comparable among those who participated in aerobic exercise alone and those who did so in conjunction with cognitive restructuring. The therapeutic effects of aerobic exercise may be, in part, attributable to the direct targeting of AS; accordingly, in addition to the general benefits on anxiety reduction exercise, may also serve as a means of natural exposure to feared bodily sensations.

Strenuous physical exercise has been found to provide physiological resilience to stressful mood states. Specifically, neuroendocrine adaptations, increases in body temperature changes in central serotonergic systems, and increases in endorphin production following exercise have been posited as mechanisms by which physical exercise regulates negative psychological states. Although detailed review is beyond the scope and intent of this review, general details of physiological effects may aid in understanding potential therapeutic mechanisms. Thermoregulatory mechanisms are known to influence homeostasis, which becomes threatened during physiological arousal. Exercise increases metabolic heat production and exposure to sub lethal homeostatic changes that mimic anxiety-induced neurochemical processes. Repeated exposure to such changes through exercise may, therefore, facilitate tolerance to arousal and stress.

Improves Sleep

There is a strong relationship between exercise and sleep improvements. Sleep disturbances, daytime sleepiness, nightmares, and poor sleep quality are prevalent among individuals with anxiety. Researchers have posited that central nervous system adaptations to anxiety lead to increases in startle and dysfunctional rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Exercising has been shown to improve sleep in individuals affected by anxiety and depression by enhancing physiological consequences that promote sleep (e.g., depleting energy stores, breaking down tissue, elevating body temperature which, in turn, reduces depressive symptoms and trait anxiety.

Showing Improvement in Social Interactions

The social interactions and interrupted social isolation brought on by the behavioral activation aspect of physical activity among those with anxiety disorders has also been posited as an important therapeutic effect. Indeed, it is well established that modification of self-perpetuating patterns such as social withdrawal and inaction may be critical to therapeutic change, whereas behavioral activation is recognized as an efficacious treatment for anxiety disorders such as PTSD. Exercise may provide an opportunity to become engaged in an activity that distracts from negative thoughts, providing an escape from daily stresses and concerns.

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