What is anxiety? Anxiety is a natural reaction occurring at a certain point in the stress response when the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis start working at a high capacity. Emotionally anxiety insights fear (neurologically fear can be defined as the memory of danger) and some side effects of this can include feeling tense, uneasy, being short of breath, having an increased heart rate, sweating and chest pain (however chest pain only happens during full-fleged panic attacks). It is normal to have these responses when one feels anxious. However, when somebody feels overly worried and continually concerned when there is no real threat, that is anxiety disorder.
Over 40 million americans suffer from clinical anxiety each year (about 18% of the population). There are several types of anxieties including, but not limited to, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, specific phobias, and social anxiety disorder. While each disorder varies to an extent they all share physical symptoms (dry mouth, nausea, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, et cetera). Mostly the disorders differ in regards of context, when they occur.
Anxiety disorder is comparable to chronic stress in that there is a cognitive misinterpretation of the situation. As anxiety is fear and fear is the memory of danger anxiety occurs when someone is reminded of something of which they are fearful. Only for people with anxiety disorders this happens frequently and often unprovoked. The brain misinterprets the situation and an unprovoked anxiety attack occurs. Exercise can, and does, help to stop this.
When you exercise the muscles begin to work and, in order to fuel the muscles, the body breaks down fat molecules. This act frees fatty acids into the blood stream. Along with these idle fatty acids tryptophan, which is one of eight essential amino acids for the slots on transport proteins, pushes through the "blood-brain barrier" to equalize its levels and immediately help form the building block for serotonin (the neurotransmitter that best regulates mood, appetite, and sleep). There is not only a boost from tryptophan but also increased levels of the brain-derived-neurotrophic-factor (BDNF) which is another byproduct of exercise and also increases serotonin levels which causes calmness and a feeling of safety.
Exercise also causes the release of gammaamino-butyric acid (GABA). GABA is the brain's major inhibitory neurotransmitter and, subsequently, the primary target for most anti anxiety medications. It is integral (having normal levels of GABA), on the cellular level, to stopping the purpose of anxiety which is "to interrupt the obsessive feedback loop in the brain." Additionally when the heart is pumping to a high capacity the muscle cells of the heart produce a molecule called atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) which calms the body down by stopping the body's hyper-arousal state.
In Chile a study was done in 2005 which split 198 fifteen-year-olds into two groups: one group (the control group) had a once a week 90 minute gym class while the other exercised intensely during three 90 minute sessions each week. While the study was directed towards measuring mood changes in a heathy population the scores relating to anxiousness really stood out on the psychological tests. While the control group saw anxiety drop an average of 3% the experimental group saw a 14% drop. The experimental group's fitness also improved 8.5% while the control group's rose only 1.8%. The conclusion of the study? There is clearly a relationship between how much (and how intensely) you exercise and how anxious you feel.
In fact the majority of studies exemplify the truth that aerobic exercise helps significantly to lessen the effects of any stress disorder. However, as I have said in previous posts, the positive implications of exercise are not limited to the alleviation of anxiety for those with anxiety disorders. Exercise helps to lower the level of anxiety in everyone, anxiety disorder or not.
SPARK The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain by. John J. Ratey, MD
Thanks for reading,