Anxiety affects 40 million adults in the United States per year according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) (1). The symptoms of anxiety can prevent a person from living and enjoying their daily lives. It can affect work, school, and social interactions. Luckily, regular exercise can help to ease symptoms and boost mood.
What is it?
Anxiety may be described as excessive feelings of worry, danger and even panicking. These feelings often trigger a response by the body including an accelerated heartbeat and fast breathing.
Feelings of anxiety are normal in some situations, like when we are actually in danger or have reason to worry. However, anxiety becomes a disorder when experienced excessively and when triggered by non-threatening or stressful situations. Chronic anxiety can be hard to shake off and creates an endless loop of worry that worsens over time.
Types of Anxiety
Though anxiety disorder can manifest in countless forms, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recognizes the following as the five major types:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): People suffering from this type of anxiety are chronically worried. They may fear or anticipate worse case scenarios and overreact with little to no trigger. This may affect their ability to enjoy life and to make meaningful relationships.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): People with OCD are triggered by recurring negative thoughts (obsessions), and manifest ritualistic behaviors (compulsions) to ease their worrying. Not being able to perform such ritualistic behaviors triggers anxiety.
Panic Disorder: Those with panic disorder are affected by sudden episodes of intense fear and hopelessness. Panic attacks usually manifest noticeable signs of distress, including heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, and dizziness. A person might fear they are having a heart attack, have lost control and even die. People who suffer from panic disorder often live in fear of another panic episode.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): This type of anxiety disorder is triggered by witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. Examples include accidents, natural disasters, assault, and military combat. PTSD might present itself as recurring dreams or flashbacks that trigger the distress felt during the traumatic event.
Social Phobia (Anxiety) Disorder: This type of anxiety occurs within social situations such as public speaking or interacting with others. A person with this disorder might experience extreme self-consciousness that triggers symptoms of anxiety (e.g. rapid heartbeat and breathing).
How Can Exercise Help?
Exercise has countless benefits to the brain, ranging from a boost in mood to improved cognitive function. Research suggests that daily exercise helps to lessen the severity of anxiety symptoms and their recurrence.
Aerobic exercise specifically lowers symptoms mediated by the sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with the human stress response (fight-or-flight). The sympathetic nervous system is what leads to the faster heart and breathing rate during anxiety. Lowering the response of this system through exercise may, in turn, lessen the symptoms of anxiety.
Neurotransmitters released during exercise also help to boost overall mood. This includes dopamine, norepinephrine (adrenaline), serotonin, and endorphins. These molecules are the “feel good” chemicals that help us feel more alert, more cheerful, and induce a sense of well-being. In this way, aerobic exercise seems to have an effect similar to antidepressants and helps us cope with episodes of uncontrollable stress.
Exercising outside provides the extra benefit of sunshine, which, in addition to having a positive effect on one’s mood, can boost the immune system and reinforce the body’s natural circadian rhythms.
“Facts & Statistics.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA, adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics.
Anderson, Elizabeth, and Geetha Shivakumar. “Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, Frontiers Media S.A., 23 Apr. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3632802/.
Digital Communications Division. “What Are the Five Major Types of Anxiety Disorders?” HHS.gov, 21 Aug. 2015, www.hhs.gov/answers/mental-health-and-substance-abuse/what-are-the-five-major-types-of-anxiety-disorders/index.html.