Guest Writer for Wake Up World
As a working mom, I have my fair share of stress. Then, 2020 arrived, and my levels went through the roof. Suddenly, I had an increased workload coupled with fears of continued employment, all while trying to learn how to homeschool my eldest.
One of the best tools in my arsenal that helps me stay sane is a regular exercise program. I’m prone to anxiety disorders, and I don’t know how I would have managed this challenging year without fitness. Here’s how working out calmed my anxiety and how it can help you, too.
The Psychology of Anxiety
What makes human beings anxious? The mechanism illustrates how intricately connected the human mind and body are.
When you experience stress, a host of physiological processes kick into play. These all evolved to help you survive.
Stress is your body’s reaction to encountering a threat that it doesn’t feel it has the resources to deal with — so it tries to shore them up. You amp up your respiration and heart rates while your digestive processes slow down to get you ready for fight or flight.
Your brain begins secreting chemicals like endorphins, which decrease your perception of pain — it’s how people can keep fighting despite debilitating injury. When you must flee an angry bear, all of these biological mechanisms keep you alive. However, they become problematic when applied to modern problems.
I wish I could outrun COVID-19, y’all, but try as I might, I can’t. Individuals are powerless against forces like pandemics, systemic racism, growing income inequality and the rising rates of everything except average wages.
Heck, most of us can’t do much about a micromanaging boss at the moment. Today’s economy proves challenging for everyone, and it’s probably not the best time to set sail on rocky unemployment seas without an anchor. Over half of all workers who find themselves hunting today lost their job when their employer closed up shop. The prospect of getting pushed to the limit daily is unpleasant, sure, but it pales behind the specter of bread lines.
What can you do when the pent-up frustration leaves you feeling like a pad of butter tossed into a hot pan — sizzling and spitting greasy “I’ve had it” splatter everywhere? Bottling up that energy sometimes leads to an eventual, and often dramatic, meltdown. You don’t want to reach your boiling point and tell your boss to shove your job where the sun doesn’t shine or serve your well-meaning, if sometimes bumbling, spouse divorce papers.
If you don’t erupt or healthfully process your emotions, eventually, internalized stress can lead to an anxiety disorder. Please remain aware of the following signs and seek help when necessary.
- You feel restless and tense: If someone asks you what’s wrong, you might not be able to pinpoint specifics. You might respond with, “2020.” However, feeling restless all the time without being able to relax is a sign of anxiety.
- You feel an impending sense of doom: This sign can be tricky to interpret. If rumors of layoff flew around your office for months and half your team disappears, you have every reason to feel worried. However, if the last official word was, “everything’s fine,” and it seems like business as usual, your perception might be the problem.
- Trouble thinking or concentrating: When you feel worried, you can’t think of anything but the threat at hand. When you have anxiety, it’s like trying to balance a budget report while running from a snarling wolf pack.
- Sleep disturbances: Anxiety can keep you tossing and turning at night. Ironically, the lack of Zzz’s further deteriorates your ability to focus and can prevent you from seeing the solution to your problems.
- Gastrointestinal problems: The idea of a nervous stomach isn’t a scientific myth. If you have anxiety, you can suffer nausea and vomiting, even diarrhea or constipation.
When anxiety disorders remain untreated, other unpleasant symptoms often arise that further compound the problem. Ongoing stress disrupts your blood sugar levels, leading you to eat more. You often crave foods high in sugar and carbs.
Excess weight can add to your stress levels, creating a vicious cycle. Plus, carrying too many pounds puts a strain on your heart, which already takes a pounding from amped-up cortisol levels. You suffer an increased risk of cardiovascular disease — and treatment for ticker-related trouble can lead to bankruptcy. You can’t catch a break.
If you notice signs of anxiety in yourself, please seek treatment. Unfortunately, though, that might not be possible if you recently lost health care coverage or didn’t have it in the first place. How can you treat the disorder and holistically reduce stress for free?
You can release your angst through exercise. A few rounds on the heavy bag provide safe and effective relief.
10 Ways Working Out Calms Anxiety
Exercise isn’t a substitute for professional treatment. However, realistically speaking, you need as many ports as possible to weather life’s storms. Here are ten ways working out helps me calm my anxiety.
1. It Produces Endorphins
Remember those feel-good endorphins? Unlike chemically synthesized opioids, there’s far less chance of addiction from the natural ones your body produces.
Working out gives me a high — maybe that’s a slang way of putting it, but it’s true. If I accomplish a 5-mile run, I also know I did at least one thing positive, even if everything else falls apart on any given day.
2. It Raises Serotonin Levels
Serotonin is a vital neurotransmitter for regulating your mood. If you ever received treatment for depression, maybe your doctor prescribed a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) to help balance your levels.
Exercise helps to regulate serotonin levels naturally. More of this substance boosts your mood and also helps regulate your appetite and sleep cycles, breaking two negative anxiety spirals.
3. It Provides an Energy Boost
Anxiety is exhausting, y’all. You toss and turn all night, and then, people expect you to function all day. Plus, you might have to deal with more on your plate if you recently lost a job or a home.
Exercise increases your energy levels as long as you don’t go overboard. If you don’t believe me, stand up and do five jumping jacks. There. You probably feel perkier already.
4. It Calms Racing Thoughts
It’s one thing to say, “stop dwelling on what you will do if you lose your job.” It’s another to stop thinking, “Did I make a typo on my resume,” when engaged in preparing a budget report for your current role.
However, a Zumba class gets you thinking about upcoming choreography, not what you’ll do without a paycheck. It interrupts the cycle of racing thoughts — often long enough for inspiration to strike. I have many of my best ideas when out running.
5. It Creates New Brain Pathways
Think of your thoughts like paths in a forest. Those that get used most frequently are wide and easy-to-follow, while those seldom traveled become overgrown. In places, you need to bushwhack.
Exercise challenges you to get out your machete and safely hack new trails. It keeps your neurons elastic and more ready to adapt to ongoing hurdles.
6. It Lowers Cortisol Levels
Cortisol is a useful hormone for fleeing bears. Since they can run faster and farther than humans, this substance helps you regulate appetite and other metabolic functions long-term.
However, when your anxious body keeps producing more and more, you become immune to the effects. Like an alcoholic who needs more booze to feel the buzz, you aren’t free from the consequences of excess.
Too much cortisol leads to weight gain and cardiovascular trouble. Exercise, though, helps bring those levels down to a reasonable number.
7. It Protects Your Heart
As you’ve seen, stress can harm your ticker. Exercise, conversely, protects this vital organ. Your heart is a muscle, and getting it pumping makes it stronger.
Working out likewise protects this organ by lowering stress hormone levels. These substances increase “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels and triglycerides, both of which can harm your heart.
8. It Reduces Muscular Tension
Stress causes your muscles to clench. When they remain contracted, you start to experience pain. The achiness increases your anxiety levels, and the spiral descends into agony.
Working out relieves muscular tension. If you have chronic pain that eases after a good sweat session, now you understand one reason why.
9. It Helps You to Sleep
I’ve noticed that I struggle to sleep when I don’t work out. Exercise helps get you tired — any parent who tuckered out their child before naptime understands this principle.
Exercise also helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle by raising your body temperature during the day and dropping it at night. I find it more effective than turning the thermostat down a degree.
10. It Improves Your Confidence
Remember when Austin Powers lost his mojo? You need confidence that you can tackle life’s many lemons to overcome anxiety.
Working out provides a healthy confidence boost. It restores your faith in your physical ability and proves that you can overcome challenges like procrastination and laziness.
Working Out Calms My Anxiety — Can It Helps Yours, Too?
I don’t know how I would have survived 2020 without regular exercise. Working out calms my anxiety for all the reasons above — can it help you, too?
Also by Jennifer Landis:
About the author:
Jennifer Landis is a healthy living blogger, mom, yogi, and tea junkie. She enjoys cooking, reading and watching Doctor Who in her free time. She writes about mindfulness, parenting, and clean eating on her blog, Mindfulness Mama.