Exercise, An Anti-Anxiety Drug

By Dr. Carlos Vazquez

Stress and anxiety are a normal part of life. However, anxiety disorders, which affect 40
million adults, are the most common psychiatric illnesses in the U.S. There are many
forms of anxiety disorders such as general anxiety disorder, social anxiety, phobias and
a host of others. In addition, anxiety tends to go hand-in- hand with depression. 

Stress doesn't only affect the brain, it also affects the body in a myriad of ways due to
nerve connections. This relationship also works in the reverse manner. For instance, the
better your body feels the better your mind feels. 

So how does exercise influence your mind? When a person exercises they produce a
chemical in the brain called endorphins. Endorphins, sometimes known as the feel good
hormone, also act as a natural painkiller. 

Research has found that regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to
decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, improve sleep, and
improve self-esteem. About five minutes of aerobic exercise can begin to stimulate anti-
anxiety effects.

Exercise can also improve self-esteem, which helps with anxiety. When a person has
low self-esteem, many things can cause anxiety due to their lack of belief in their
abilities. However, when you exercise it gives a person a sense of strength and
confidence boost to your self-esteem. In addition, it reduces, in many cases, anxiety but
of the increase in your confidence level in accomplishing tasks.

Many studies now show that exercise can relieve anxiety and depression symptoms
with as little exercise as a 10min walk! Especially beneficial are walks in nature such as
a forest, beach, or mountains. The effects may be temporary but the relief can last for
hours and with proper thinking exercises (cognitive behavioral techniques) the relief can
last longer.

Research has also shown that physically active individuals have lower rates of anxiety
and depression than those that are not active. Vigorous exercise such as a hard cardio
workout or boxing can provide relief for hours!

Not only does exercise help the brain cope with stress better but it actually changes the
proportions of chemicals in the brain. As an example, runners developed new neurons
that are specifically designed to release the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA is a
chemical that produces calming effects for individuals. Therefore, exercise can work as
well as medication for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

There is a caveat, exercise is not a substitute for therapy when an individual has a long
and/or severe mental health issue. In life, not everything works for everyone.
Regardless, the benefits of exercise on physical health is undeniable and in turn people
should stay physically active!

Dr. Carlos Vazquez, Adjunct Professor and Behavioral Psychologist
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Exercise for Mood and Anxiety, Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-Being, by Michael W. Otto, PhD, and Jasper A.J. Smits, PhD
(Oxford University Press, 2011)

Physical exercise prevents stress-induced activation of granule neurons and
enhances local inhibitory mechanisms in the dentate gyrus.

Schoenfeld TJ, et al. J Neurosci. 2013.