By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 24 January 2015)
Sedentary lifestyle is a major contributor to panic disorder and anxiety in general. Unsurprisingly, exercise is among the most effective anxiety treatments.
Unfortunately, some people initially fear the increase in heart rate that they experience during cardio exercise because they associate it with panic attacks. However, unless you have a specific medical condition that precludes exercise, persisting with workouts will reduce (and often completely eliminate) panic symptoms, and lower your overall anxiety level significantly. In addition, exercise provides brain benefits and enhances mood.
How Exercise Reduces Anxiety
According to the Mayo Clinic (2011), exercise reduces anxiety in the long term, as well as the depression that often accompanies it, by:
- Triggering the release of brain chemicals that enhance mood, and reducing those that can worsen depression
- Raising body temperature, which can have a calming effect
- Boosting confidence and the belief that you can cope in a healthy way
- Providing distraction from worries
- Increasing social interaction, if working out with others
According to Reynolds (2011), there is evidence that exercise actually changes the brain to make it more stress-resistant in the long term.
How Exercise Helps Reduce or Stop Panic Attacks
Exercise is often the best way to end a panic attack early because it uses up that extra fight-or-flight adrenaline that’s coursing through your body. When your panic alarm has been tripped, your body wants to run, jump, swim, or fight; if you’re completely still, you have too much adrenaline that’s not being used for anything. Vigorous exercise can put it to productive use.
Unfortunately, some people experience anxiety symptoms during workouts, particularly when starting out. This occurs because they associate the rapid heart rate, sweating, and other normal physical responses to exercise with panic. However, you can reduce the likelihood of suffering anxiety during a workout by applying the following tips supplied by Dooley (2011):
- Warm up properly before exerting yourself, and cool down afterward so that you don’t shock your body with abrupt shifts from stillness to hard cardio exercise and back again. This will keep your body in sync with your heart rate. If you are running, for example, start with a brisk walk, then a jog, then start running. When you want to stop, go through the sequence in reverse.
- Eat properly and stay hydrated during workouts to reduce the likelihood of dizziness. Don’t work out without eating beforehand and bring water with you so that you can drink regularly while exercising.
- Don’t forget to breathe. Many people hold their breath at certain points during workouts, especially when lifting weights, and improper breathing can trigger symptoms associated with anxiety and panic.
- Move gradually toward more intense exercise. If you’ve been largely sedentary for years, you can’t just go out and run marathons. Set realistic small goals and work toward them. Big achievements are made up of small steps.
Suffering anxiety during workouts is a common problem among panic-prone people, particularly those who have just started working out. If you persist through it, you should gain significant relief from your anxiety in the long run. However, if you have any health concerns, be on the safe side and go in for a medical check-up just to make sure. Once you have your clean bill of health (or are at least free of conditions that completely rule out exercise), you’ll know that you can push through your anxiety and come out stronger on the other side.
How to Start an Exercise Program
Exercise should be pleasurable (or at least not awful). Find activities you enjoy so that you’ll be more likely to stick with them. Options include running, cycling, swimming, martial arts, aerobics, circuit training, dance, plyometrics, brisk walking, hiking, and team or solitary sports that require a lot of running around (soccer, tennis, etc.).
Aim for consistent exercise rather than binging on exercise over the weekends. If you can put in at least 15-20 minutes each day, that’s better than being sedentary most days and then working out for many hours on the weekend. For information on how much exercise you should aim for each week, see How Much Exercise Do People Need? Keep in mind that if you miss a couple of days, that’s no reason to give up on your exercise program. Even the fittest people miss their workouts sometimes.
You may not enjoy your workouts initially, but it’s important to persist. Most people who exercise regularly find that their bodies eventually become addicted to the exercise – they feel good when they do it and miss it when they don’t. But it can take a few months to get to this point.
There are a number of ways to build motivation so that you can start working out and maintain your exercise program:
- Pair pleasurable stimuli with workouts – Listen to your favourite music only while exercising or work out to your favourite TV shows or movies.
- Exercise with others – Find a workout buddy or join a class to increase motivation.
- Celebrate your achievements – Reward yourself for achieving small goals that you set for yourself. Rewards can be anything from purchasing a new item to taking a relaxing bubble bath to having a nice meal at a restaurant with a friend.
- Raise money for charity – Have friends and/or family sponsor you for meeting exercise goals you set for yourself. When you reach these goals, you can donate the money raised to your favourite charity.
- Compete to challenge yourself – Have a friendly competition with coworkers, friends, or family members who are at similar fitness levels.
- Vary your routine – Try new activities regularly and vary them from one week to the next to reduce boredom. You’ll also develop a higher level of fitness by mixing it up.
- Exercise outdoors in beautiful surroundings if possible (and as weather permits) – In addition to reducing boredom, fresh air and sunshine provide mood-boosting benefits.
- Learn about the brain benefits of exercise – See Cognitive Benefits of Exercise and Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey for information about how cardio exercise enhances mood, boosts brain power, and reduces the risk of cognitive decline with age).
If you have any potential health concerns, check with a doctor before embarking on an exercise routine. Most regular exercise routines are safe for the majority of people if done properly and at an appropriate level, but it’s always a good idea to consult a doctor just to make sure.
For more natural anxiety and panic therapies, see the main Panic and Anxiety Treatments page.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2012). “Exercise for Stress and Anxiety.” ADAA.org.
- Dooley, P. (2011). “Exercise Induced Anxiety.” AnxietyGuru.net.
- Dryden-Edwards, R., MD (Author), Conrad Stoppler, M., MD (Editor). (25 March 2010). “Panic Attacks.” EMedicineHealth.com.
- Maertz, K. (2014). “Panic/Anxiety Attacks.” University of Alberta, UWell.UAlberta.
- Mayo Clinic. (2011, October 1). “Depression and Anxiety: Exercise Eases Symptoms.” MayoClinic.com.
- Ratey, J., MD. (2008). Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Little, Brown and Company.
- Reynolds, G. (2009, November 18). “Phys Ed: Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious.” The New York Times, Well.Blogs.NYTimes.com.
- Smith, M., MA; Segal, R., MA; & Segal, J., PhD. (2012, January). “Therapy for Anxiety Disorders.” HelpGuide.org.
- Whalley, S., & Jackson, L. (2004). Running Made Easy. London, UK: Robson Books.