When I was about 16, I suddenly started feeling compelled to check things. I made sure that my personal belongings at home were arranged just so, or that my wallet was always safe in my pocket. In time, this compulsion developed into a feeling of generalised anxiety.
As my anxiety progressed, I would engage in exercise sporadically, but I couldn’t stick at it. I would let my anxiety talk me out of it, never giving myself the time to make it a habit.
The neuroscience of exercise
It’s common knowledge by now that exercise can help to increase mood and make us more resilient to stress. This is partially due to the release of endorphins from the pituitary gland, serotonin from the raphe nuclei, and norepinephrine from the locus coeruleus during moderate-intensity exercise.[i]
In addition, the repeated tensing and relaxing of muscles that occurs during anaerobic exercise (strength training, HIIT, sprints) helps to reduce anxiety in the same way as progressive muscle relaxation.[ii] As muscles become more relaxed due to exertion, the mind gradually starts to calm down.
Why it’s so hard to exercise when you’re anxious
With this knowledge in hand, we might expect that everyone suffering from anxiety or high stress levels would be rushing to get their body moving! However, there are neurological reasons why feeling anxious or stressed makes it much harder to perform helpful activities
When you experience heightened emotional stress over an extended period of time, the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher cognitive abilities such as planning, personality expression, and adhering to social convention, becomes impaired.[iii] Choice and self-determination take a back seat, while the limbic system overloads the individual with chemical alerts telling them to protect themselves from the stressor.
How exercise rewires your brain
If all of this is sounding rather bleak, don’t lose hope! The good news is that the more exercise you do, the stronger your executive functions get.
In both the short- and long-term, exercise encourages something called neuroplasticity.[iv] Neuroplasticity allows the brain to adapt to changes in external factors, helping you to cope better with stressful events.
Regular aerobic exercise has also been shown to increase gray matter volume in both the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, resulting in improvements to attention span and impulse control.[v] Overall, then, exercise can help you feel more in control of your emotions, and make it easier to distance yourself from the fight-or-flight response.
Hi! My name’s Will, and I’ve been living with anxiety for about 7 years now. Last year, I completed my Master’s in English at Oxford University, and have since started work as a Marketing Assistant for a specialist IT company. In my spare time, I enjoy hiking, reading, and playing the guitar.
I am writing for Anxiety UK because I have often found the experience of anxiety extremely isolating. In my darkest moments, the words of others have helped guide me through my struggles, and I hope to pass on this sense of solace through my own writing. To me, anxiety is something to be managed, not eradicated. As a result, I am keen to share my experiences with different coping strategies, such that others might consider adopting them.
[i] ‘Exercise, Depression, and the Brain’, Healthline, 2016: https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/exercise.
[ii] ‘Can exercise help treat anxiety?’, Harvard Health Publishing, 2019: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-exercise-help-treat-anxiety-2019102418096.
[iii] ‘The effects of stress exposure on prefrontal cortex: Translating basic research into successful treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder’, Amy F.T. Arnsten et al, 2015: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352289514000101.
[iv] ‘Neuroscience of Exercise: Neuroplasticity and Its Behavioral Consequences’, Henning Budde et al, 2016: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5081452/.
[v] ‘Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations’, Hayley Guiney & Liana Machado, 2013: https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13423-012-0345-4.
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