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How exercise can help you to reduce your Anxiety

How exercise can help you to reduce your Anxiety

The most common advice people who suffer from anxiety receive is to engage in some kind of physical activity. It’s an advice that figures in any book about psychology and on any page on the internet related to anxiety. However, in this article I would like to specify some concepts since, in my opinion, not all kinds of physical activity reduce anxiety in the same way.

The fact that anxiety will reduce when we engage in physical activity has been scientifically proven in many different investigations. It applies both to state anxiety (the anxiety that one experiences in a specific situation) and trait anxiety (anxiety that is linked to a predisposition to worry constantly and to overestimate risks). But how does this work? In this article I will explain the different reasons:

Why does exercise help you to reduce your anxiety?

  • When we exercise our body increases the production of endorphins. These are hormones that partially inhibit the nerve fibers which transmit pain signals, through which they help to relief pain, reduce anxiety and improve well-being.
  • Many people who suffer from panic attacks, maybe the most intense manifestation of anxiety, develop fear of not only specific situations but also of the symptoms they experience during the attacks. They tend to interpret normal physical experiences in a catastrophic way: raised heartbeat, sweatiness, and hyperventilation. All these symptoms are normal physical reactions when we exercise in an intense way. That’s why it’s very positive to experience these symptoms during physical activity so to become used to them. It can help us to get to know the possibilities of our own body, our stamina and our limits. This will help us to interpret the symptoms of anxiety in a correct and non-catastrophic way.
  • Engaging in physical exercise in a consistent way improves the performance of our respiratory and cardiovascular systems which in turn enhance self-regulation of the central nervous system. This improvement can, for many people, facilitate a better reaction to fear.
  • Physical activity increases the availability of noradrenalin and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are involved in the regulation of stress and in the perception of well-being, and are effective in reducing the symptomatology of anxiety and depression.
  • Physical exercise, when carried out in the right moment, can help us to improve the quality of sleep, one of the problems which most affect people who suffer from anxiety.
  • Furthermore, to see how our body changes bit by bit, and starts to look healthier and stronger, can help us to get a better perception of one-self thereby improving our self-esteem.

Now that we explained this I would like to add some personal considerations with regard to the kind of physical exercise one can choose.

Which exercise should I practice?

The type of exercise you choose as a complement to psychotherapy for anxiety shouldn’t be just any kind of exercise in my opinion. If we don’t choose the right kind of exercise we are at risk of inverting loads of time and effort only to receive part of the total possible benefits.

Many people who suffer from anxiety are very ruminative. This means that they suffer of continuous repetitive thoughts and worries, a dialogue without an end. These negative thoughts fuel fear and in consequence anxiety.

Concentration in exercise?

That is why I always advice people to pick a physical activity which requires a high level of concentration. This is important because people who suffer from intrusive thoughts are easily distracted. It is perfectly possible to run, go cycling, or engage in weight lifting while at the same time our brain is occupied with worrying or generating obsessive thoughts. Monotonous activities, even though they might be enjoyable don´t necessarily help to reduce the internal dialogue and ruminations, since the required level of concentration is very low.

Social support

Another important factor is the social component of sports. All the activities I mentioned before are nearly always done solitarily, while we could actually benefit more of these activities if they involve the presence of other people

Social support is of fundamental importance in the treatment of anxiety. It helps reduce tension and anxiety in a very important way since anxiety normally causes us to retreat ourselves from our social life and exercise can be a way of obtaining it. Exercise can help you to expose yourself to social situations in a gradual way, which is important since avoidance fuels fear.

Recuperating our instincts

The last important factor is “recuperating our instinct”. As Damián Ruiz explains really well in his book “Freeing the monkey, saving the princess”, we can see the fear which fuels anxiety as losing the instinct to survive and deal with life. This is something that you see quite often in caged animals which have been deprived of freedom, live in a world that doesn’t adapt to their true needs and in which they are not able to express their basic instincts.

The people who find themselves repressing their instincts and true desires have found that this is the only way to adapt themselves to unpleasant life events. However, what happens is that this blocked vital energy now gets stuck in the mind in the shape of dysfunctional and intrusive thoughts as well as in the shape of physical symptoms.

Which exercise helps combat intrusive thoughts?

Because of all we mentioned before we belief that the best sports to reduce anxiety and intrusive thoughts are contact sports like Boxing, Kickboxing or Muay Thay.

Sometimes when I propose these kind of sports, following the Analytical- Experiential method, by Damián Ruiz, I see that my patients are very surprised, and this is understandable. But once they start and they notice how they produce real change in the symptomatology of their anxiety, the surprise usually transforms itself into enthusiasm.

While anxiety is an involuntary and dysfunctional activation of the central nervous system, most of the time related to fears that even patients themselves call unrealistic, contact sports obligate them to confront themselves to real fears and cause them to voluntarily activate the central nervous system.

Moreover, these activities will bring you in contact with your most basic instincts, the instincts you might have lost during your life due to certain life events. The intellect, logos, in those moments can’t dominate our primordial instinct; there is no space for thoughts or ruminations.

Other activities that involve these benefits are: rugby, african dances and capoeira.

So, even though it is true that any kind of physical activity provides you with benefits from a biological standpoint, the sports that most positively affect anxiety are the ones I mentioned in the beginning of this section.

Marco De Colle

Psicólogo Clínico