Considering our fast-paced society and the stress of modern-day living, it’s no wonder that many people struggle with anxiety from time to time. While some doctors will readily prescribe medication to treat the symptoms, not everyone desires a “solution” in the form of a drug. They’d prefer natural or alternative ways to alleviate or at least reduce symptoms of anxiety. It’s not uncommon for depression to co-occur for many people who have an anxiety disorder. Many symptoms of these two disorders overlap, including feelings of sadness, irritability, and problems with sleep. Although there are treatments for each of these conditions, they can be very expensive. Therapy can easily cost hundreds of dollars per month. Many anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications are also expensive, not to mention the fact that they also come with a long list of potential side effects. Fortunately, there are natural, safe ways to both reduce and alleviate symptoms of anxiety. One of the most time-tested and effective is exercise.
Benefits of Exercise
There are several different ways that exercise helps to alleviate symptoms of anxiety. For starters, it causes the release of endorphins and other neurotransmitters in the brain. These chemicals help regulate mood and create an overall sense of well-being. This surge of endorphins is what runners are referring to when they talk about a “runner’s high”. Although many of the medications used to treat anxiety and depression target these same chemicals, they often cause side effects that aren’t associated with exercise. Exercise also helps strengthen your immune system, while reducing the production of chemicals that can actually make depression worse. Additionally, when you exercise, you raise your body’s temperature. This will help you feel calmer and more relaxed. Sleep is often negatively impacted by both depression and anxiety. Poor sleep creates a vicious cycle because it makes it even more difficult to cope. When you’re constantly sleep deprived, your energy levels are low, you feel tired all the time, and your ability to concentrate is impaired. Regular exercise can improve your sleep significantly. Not only will you fall asleep more quickly, you’ll sleep more soundly through the night. You’ll feel more alert and energetic during the day, which will make it easier to focus and be productive. If you’re feeling stressed, down, or worried, getting out and exercising is a great way to shift your focus to something more positive. Every time you exercise you’re giving yourself a mental break from negative, anxiety-provoking internal chatter. Anxiety and depression often go hand-in-hand with low self-esteem and a lack of confidence. If you exercise regularly, your confidence will begin to improve. You may also find that worry becomes less of an issue, because regular exercise can give you a greater sense of control over your life. Taking walks, working out at a gym, or participating in an exercise class is also a great way to meet other people. Since many people with anxiety – and even more so with depression – tend to isolate, getting out and interacting with others in a positive environment can help boost your mood as well.
Choosing the Best Method of Exercise
Lack of motivation is often one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to developing a regular exercise regimen. This is especially true if you struggle with depression. Just finding the energy to get started in the first place can feel like an insurmountable task. One of the best ways to overcome this hurdle is to recognize that exercise doesn’t have to be grueling or boring. Working out at the gym or running for miles around a track isn’t the way to get the exercise you need. If you try to force yourself to do any type of exercise that you really dislike, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Unless you have an iron will, you’ll probably stop after one or two workouts. A better plan of action is to find a type of exercise that you genuinely enjoy. For example, walking your dog, jogging or hiking on a scenic trail, riding your bike, or playing tennis regularly are all great ways to have fun while exercising. If you enjoy it, you’ll be far more motivated. The important thing, though, is to get up and get moving. If you choose a type of exercise that you have enjoyed in the past, you will be even more likely to take that first step and get involved.
Tips for Getting Started
Getting the motivation to get started will probably be the most difficult part of the process. Planning carefully and developing a systematic approach and realistic goals will help you get going and maintain your program long enough to make a difference. To do so, follow these steps:
- Decide which type (or types) of exercise you want to do. You don’t have to limit yourself to only one type – in fact, variety will not only make it more interesting, but will also work more muscles in your body overall. While it’s fine to try something new, it might be better (at least starting out) to start with something you’ve done in the past that you enjoyed. This will help boost your motivation and keep you interested once you get started.
- Create a schedule for when you will do each type of exercise and for how long. Make sure that it fits relatively easily into your current routine as much as possible.
- Consult with your doctor before starting any new exercise program, especially if you are overweight or have any medical conditions. If your doctor gives you the green light, great! If not, discuss alternative types of exercise that would be more appropriate for you at this time. If you’re in treatment for anxiety or depression, discuss your plans so that your treatment provider can monitor your progress and adjust things (e.g. medication) accordingly. If you’re on medication, never adjust the dosage or stop taking it without talking to your doctor first. Even if you start feeling much better with exercise, some medications will need to be tapered gradually in order to discontinue them safely.
- Be realistic with the expectations you put on yourself. If you’re out of shape, it’s going to take some time to build up your strength and endurance. It’s okay if you can manage only a few minutes each day for the first couple of weeks. Push yourself a little, but pay attention to your body. A little bit of muscle soreness is one thing; a torn ligament or other type of injury due to overdoing it is another. You don’t want to end up with an injury that prevents you from exercising altogether – that could make you feel even more depressed and discouraged. Set realistic goals, start out slowly, and build up gradually.
- Focus on having fun while you exercise. If you’ve chosen the right activity for you, and you’re feeling better each time you do it, you’ll find that you look forward to your exercise sessions. You’ll have the greatest success if exercise doesn’t feel like a chore, or something you “have” to do. It’s much better if you look at it as something good that you’ve chosen to do for yourself – to enhance both your physical and emotional well-being.
- Don’t expect an overnight miracle. You may feel some benefit the first time you exercise, but if you don’t, that’s okay. For most people, the benefits – in terms of their anxiety and depression – come gradually. Unrealistic expectations can leave you feeling disappointed and letdown – and with depression, you’re already sensitive to disappointment. Make a commitment to stick with it for at least 3, and preferably 6 months. You’ll probably notice some benefits within just a few weeks. Give it time and know that it will only get better.
For some people, regular exercise can be the very thing that allows them to finally stop taking medication for their anxiety or depression. However, even if that doesn’t happen for you, don’t assume that you have somehow failed or that it doesn’t help. If you commit to some form of aerobic exercise (with your doctor’s okay, of course), for 30 to 60 minutes a day, 4 to 5 days a week, you can’t help but reap many benefits. Once you get started and get through the first 2 to 4 weeks, you’ll probably never look back!