By Brian Robinson.
One of the most important advances in the treatment of anxiety and depression in recent years is the understanding of the role exercise can play in recovery. Regular exercise, even in small amounts, can alleviate symptoms and can help to lift our mood. Exercise is of course a behaviour, and all behaviours are noted and logged by the brain. Exercise not only relaxes the muscles, it sends the right ‘danger past’ signal to the brain.
Generally speaking, the activity levels of sufferers tend to drop considerably and this just feeds into the anxiety. People lose interest; hobbies are put on the back burner; there is a tendency to socialise less. This sends the wrong signal to the brain and is another reason why keeping up activity levels is important.
Regular exercise doesn’t necessarily mean running for miles or pumping iron till your veins pop. In the first instance, it might mean just doing the things you did before anxiety set in: taking the dog for a walk, gardening or washing the car. And if you can add to that normal everyday activity, then all the better. You might cycle to work for example, or take the stairs rather than the lift.
Even a 10-15 minute walk can make a difference, but whatever you decide, always start off slowly, set reasonable goals and try and do something you really enjoy. If you have any health issues that might be affected by exercise, then have a word with your doctor first.
Moderate aerobic exercise, where you use your lungs and become slightly warm would be the ideal. Warmth and movement are the key factors involved in muscle relaxation. However, if you push yourself too hard this can have the opposite effect. This can put your body under unnecessary stress and that may be counterproductive. If you run for example, you should run well within your limits and perhaps avoid any sort of sprint finish. If you enjoy weight training, then make sure you include a relax element to mimic the muscle relaxation exercise.
There may also be psychological benefits to increased activity. For example, meeting exercise goals can boost confidence and self-esteem. And you can relax in the belief that you are doing something positive to deal with your anxiety. It can also act as a distraction exercise from the cycle of negative thoughts.
The benefits of exercise in terms of body chemistry are twofold. Firstly, exercise can increase feel-good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins. Endorphins can trigger positive effects similar to morphine. And secondly, exercise can burn off stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
Exercise can also be an aid to restful sleep. It can help to clear your mind, release tension and relax your body. It can even be a group activity. It can get you out of the house socialising with others.
Recovering from anxiety can be seen as a mission to regain overall control. We may not be able to control our anxiety symptoms or the worry it brings. But we can control what we do. We decide on our activity; where we go; and how we do it.