Working out anxiety


Working out your anxiety

This blog post is about the use of exercise to manage anxiety symptoms. If you suffer from anxiety and are looking to do something about it, this post may be for you.

Disclaimer: I am a practicing psychotherapist, and an anxiety specialist, but I am not licensed to practice internal medicine. Therefore, nothing I say below should be taken as medical advice. If you are interested in starting or stopping a physical exercise regimen, you should first speak to your primary care physician about whether this will be a healthy decision for you.


The Basics

Easily one of the healthiest and most effective ways of dealing with anxiety is exercise. But how does it work? The discomfort felt in anxiety is tied directly to cravings for certain neurotransmitters. Exercise releases these neurotransmitters - and this is just one of the ways that it works to relieve anxiety. Exercising regularly also changes a person’s physiology, and makes them less prone to anxiety even on days that they’re not working out.

Exercise can take considerable willpower, but it gets easier over time. The next time you feel anxious, try engaging in some form of exercise before resorting to a less healthy coping strategy. Even just going for a walk can help. Hiring a personal trainer or teaming up with a fitness buddy are also great ways to stay motivated.

When thinking about anxiety, it can be helpful to adopt a pragmatic perspective. Know that there are a number of different reasons why any one person is anxious - and that a number of interventions can be used to help manage and/or treat the anxiety. Of course, understanding why anxiety has become such a problem is important, but equally important is figuring out what we can do about it.

There are a number of proven ways to manage anxiety symptoms. In the last blog post, we explored how lowering one’s daily caffeine consumption could lead to feeling less anxious. Today’s post will focus on exercise, and what it can do to lower your level of anxiety.

impacts & causes

The triggers of anxiety are as numerous and as different as the people who suffer from it. Fingers have been pointed to everything from formative experiences (including traumas) that are carried forward from youth, to cultural phenomena such as the widespread use of social media. The recent presidential election, stressful relationships, excess caffeine use, and many other things may play a role in maintaining and bolstering anxiety.

Anxiety disorders (those diagnosable levels of anxiety for which we have labels) affect more than 40 million Americans, making anxiety the most widespread mental health issue currently facing the United States. An even greater number of Americans, although not diagnosable with any anxiety disorder, still suffer from anxiety and could benefit from effective interventions. This is because anxiety makes it difficult to enjoy our lives and it also hinders our ability to function at work, at school, and in every other sphere of life. 

Both the personal and professional costs of anxiety are staggering. The global costs of untreated anxiety, in terms of workplace productivity alone, are estimated in the tens of trillions of dollars each year. The personal costs are, of course, impossible to quantify, but are equally serious. It boggles the mind to try and think of all of the job interviews, first dates, crisis situations, and so forth that have been soured by the symptoms of anxiety.

treatment & management

According to the most prominent theory in Psychology about anxiety, our anxiety is the result of the way we perceive and think about the world around us. This seems pretty straightforward. But notice that if this theory is right, then stressful situations do not actually make people anxious. Instead, people become anxious because they interpret situations as stressful, threatening, etc. 

Therapists working from this cognitive perspective will work with their client to create changes in the way they perceive their world - and thereby help them get rid of their anxiety. However, therapy is not accessible to everyone. For those who are not comfortable seeing a therapist, or who are unable for financial reasons to see a therapist, there are other options available. Exercise is among the best of these options.

benefits of Exercise

Because prolonged stress and anxiety have so many negative ramifications - including decreased ability to focus and concentrate, increased levels of fatigue, and poorer overall cognitive function - there are a number of benefits one can expect from including exercise in their daily routine. More sleep and better sleep quality is one of the easiest ways to measure benefits. Furthermore, all of these symptoms are connected. Notice that improving sleep quality will in turn yield a host of related benefits, including less frequent or less severe anxiety symptoms (precisely because poor sleep quality, especially a lack of REM sleep, can often play an important role in maintaining high levels of anxiety).

But why is working out such an effective approach to managing anxiety? When we exercise, our body produces endorphins - a group of hormones that have an opiate-like effect on the body. These endorphins produce a sense of calm that can ease anxiety throughout the day and can help us get to sleep at night. These natural “painkillers” are a healthy alternative to self medicating with substances such as alcohol. 

Exogenous substances (such as alcohol), have a tendency to disturb the brain’s electrochemical homeostasis and can lead to greater anxiety symptoms over time - both from withdrawal and as a result of chronic use. Working out releases endogenous anti-anxiety substances (such as endorphins) and is a better long term strategy. Over time, through a regular and rigorous exercise practice, we can put our brains in a better position to weather anxiety symptoms even when we aren’t able to make it into the gym.

Keep in mind that more intense physical activity can lead to a “runner’s high.” This is a state caused by a larger than normal release of endorphins in response to vigorous aerobic exercise. However, in order to feel the effects of endorphins, and to benefit from their anxiety easing potential, a more moderate approach to exercise will often be preferable.

There are many different ways to exercise, so it will be helpful to experiment. After trying your hand at different kinds of workouts (cardio, weight-lifting, yoga, etc.), you will get a sense of which workouts have the most impact on your anxiety and which fit the best into your life. Typically, exercise regimens that require the greatest level of physical exertion, and that can be performed regularly, will have the greatest impact on anxiety symptoms. 


Thanks for tuning in, Seattle!

Check back again at for more articles about anxiety and what you can do about it.