The relationship between exercise and anxiety: from someone who has been there.

in psychology •  last year

If you suffer with anxiety I can almost hear you groan through the screen at me - and you're very entitled to. The amount of times that I've been told to exercise when I've told someone that I'm feeling anxious or low is too many to count. And when you feel like you're glued to the bed, this so-called 'advice' can feel frustrating, pointless, and just a little bit like you're being blamed for your mental illness because you failed to go for a run that day.

I get it. Which is why it may come as a surprise to you that the next thing I'm going to say is this:

You should try exercise.

But - before you roll your eyes and click away, let me explain. I don't mean it in the same way as other people. I understand that when anxiety or depression is sitting on you like a massive, black rock, exercise is off the table. Which is why you have to approach it with a realistic attitude. Here's some things from my approach that have helped me.

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  • Admit to yourself that actually, exercise does help.

This is actually a very difficult step, or at least, it was for me. It's awful to feel like other people were right, but also exercise is time consuming, and often not that pleasant. I'd rather not exercise than exercise. But admitting that it could help you is the first step.

  • Remind yourself that it is OKAY to skip a day if you simply cannot face it.

Although exercise can help, there are still going to be days where it can't, when you're already too bad, or when you simply cannot bring yourself to do it. Cut yourself some slack, you're only human. Feeling like a failure isn't going to help.

  • This being said, when you feel like you CAN do it, you SHOULD do it.

This is perhaps the biggest and most important conclusion I have come to. The time in my life where my anxiety was held most at bay was when I was frequently going to the gym. I still skipped workouts when I felt I couldn't face them, but if I could POSSIBLY do it, then I'd do it. Even if it meant getting up early or coming home late, even if it meant going out in the rain in the winter, or not having as much time for TV. The fact is that it's quite likely you won't feel like it a lot of the time.

But instead of asking yourself 'do I WANT to exercise?', ask yourself the question, 'am I ABLE to exercise?' If the answer is yes, then do it.

  • Find something you want to succeed in.

Notice I don't say 'enjoy', because there are very few sports that people enjoy 100% of the time. Enjoyment will come with time, but a good start is to choose something that you would like to be good at. For me, this is weight lifting. This is particularly good for me because I like to see the progress I am making. Every week seeing how much more I can lift, or noticing that my muscles are beginning to look more defined. Endorphins aside, this has the added side effect of being great for confidence too.

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  • If it helps, use visualisation at the same time as exercising.

This is a technique I learnt from guided meditation. When I was first starting out, the guide would keep telling us to visualise our motivation for taking time out of our day to meditate, and to keep reminding ourselves of our motivation.

I changed this a little and applied it to my weight training. Now, if I'm lifting a weight, I'll imagine that I'm pushing or pulling the anxiety off of me. Not only does this give me a really clear picture of why I'm doing it, but I've also noticed that this image helps me perform better in the gym as well.

I hope you've found this helpful. To reiterate, I completely understand that for bad anxiety days, exercise won't cut it, and some people will need other forms of help for their anxiety too. However, I hope you'll see this as a good start, whether you use exercise to treat your anxiety, or to supplement treatment you're recieving.

I'd love to hear your stories about exercise having impacts on your life, as well as other helpful ways of combating anxiety. Please leave a comment below and upvote if you've found this article valuable.

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Exercise is actually a good practice for the body, it shapes your body and gives you sound mind. helps metabolism and keeps the body healthy always. Exercise is a good practice

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I know - this is what I was saying in my article :) I think though it is important to remember that for people with depression and anxiety, sometimes it is really impossible to get up and exercise. However, the point I was trying to make is that it's always a good idea to try (if and when you can), to 'get' anxiety before it can 'get' you but using exercise to try to keep it at bay and maintain a happier mind.

I've read before that exercise is what's called a "keystone habit" that will help you improve in other areas of life - it will give you strength, willpower, determination, etc. that will cascade into improving other things - such as anxiety as you mentioned. Great post.

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Really? That's such a good way of thinking about it actually, and really applies to me as well. At my peak, I was exercising lots, as well as keeping on top of uni work, an internship, and of course I even started eating better because you don't want to waste your time at the gym! Interestingly, when I was in the process of moving and didn't have gym access for a while, I felt like my life was falling apart a little. My anxiety got worse but my motivation went down too, and I stopped eating as well either. I do think it's such an important thing to find time for if you possibly can.

I'll agree exercise is totally spot on for anxiety. When I was 21 I could run 200 metres flat out without getting out of breath. That was because I walked everywhere, biked lots and got up to mischief with my friends. I had a really slim and toned body. I'm going to say a strange thing to you though. I was super fit BECAUSE of my anxiety. I just couldn't sit still long enough to enjoy a fleeting moment with myself.

Now that I'm 37, have age on my side and experience anxiety very little I've slowed down. It's really weird. Over the last 10 years I've stopped drinking & smoking, stopped worrying and chilled out 10 fold. The result? Lazy fat man haha.

I'll agree though, everytime I do a jog or get up to some exercise I feel damn great :)

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Ahh that's so interesting - I think that's definitely one way to deal with anxiety. I never stop in other ways too, never stop looking for opportunities, or a new job, or seeing friends, or working on projects. So much of the time I stop for a second and am like.... when was the last time I just let myself stop and just sit down and have a cup of tea and watch TV? I think exercise is good for this too, because it tires you out and makes you NEED to just take a few minutes for yourself after.

I'm glad to hear you're struggling less as time goes on. Don't think you count as fat though - I did see you in the video, remember!

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This is true - although my belly is huge! I never show that on video haha. I'm probably not fat in the grand scheme of things but compared to what I was like as a young adult to now? I'm at least 6 stone heavier!

I was 29 there! A lot slimmer :)

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Haha well there are more important things in life than weight luckily! I love your wedding photo, great action shot with the confetti.

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That's true. I'm very happy right now as I am. :)

We were lucky with our photographer. She was new on the job, so as a 'portfolio case' we had her at a fraction of the cost :) She caught some amazing shots!

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That's lovely :) and oh wow! Bargain! Took a risk and it paid off :)

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Yup yup :)

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Some says that a man's greatest happiness in particular is his wedding day @raymondspeaks

If you are defeating anxiety with exercise then that is good.
I myself is suffering from it due to my condition and there is no way I cannot do about it.
I had given up, no solution for anxiety and medications just won,t work because it's temporary with side-effects.

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It certainly helps. I'm also in the process of trying to see a professional about it to hopefully get some additional strategies or advice on what to do when it passes the point that exercise helps, but I think that doing what you can for self help is a really good start and as you said, if you can use exercise instead of medications then that's a wonderful thing.

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I would suggest @harrietbradley for you seek a prof. help because IMO it is a serious health issue that will involve/affect on how you will deal with life, relationships, job etc. so it is important to somewhat cure it.

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Don't worry, I'm on it! First appointment is coming up. On the meantime though, I'll be helping myself the best way I know how.

Really like your message! Fitness is my supplementation in all things healthy. I've learned to use it for many things. Great post, thanks for sharing.

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Thanks! Just had a look at your page and it certainly seems like you know fitness! I think it's really beneficial to build it into your lifestyle and not see it as a bad thing or a punishment, but as just something you do like eating or showering.

Hello Harriet, nice to meet you. I can totally relate that. Being a programmer, sitting all day in front of desk, finishing deadlines, make you all stressed out. That's when a friend of mine introduced me to weight training. It really feels good after a workout session. Now fitness has became a daily habit. I really loved your article on weight training facts. I'm new on steem it just like you. Hope we'll be good friends.Looking forward for your articles. You have an amazing physique. :) That requires a lot of discipline and dedication.

kindly check my blog @rahul516. I write fitness stuff. Follow if you like it.
upvoted and followed.

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Thanks for your feedback, and I'm glad to hear you've caught the fitness bug! It really helps doesn't it? Nothing like the post workout buzz 👌🏼 I'll check out your blog for sure :)

Haha I have a long way to go but thank you! I try my best!

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Yep, there is no better feeling after a good workout session.cheers :)

Nothing boosts confidence while in gym like a good bad ass beat :) Workout mix

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This is so true! Thanks :)

This is wonderful - thanks for sharing! I am a fitness competitor and bodybuilder...also a VERY anxious person. Throughout my training, I've found that doing 5-10 minutes of yoga before and 5-10 minutes of meditation after has helped a lot.

I agree - visualization while exercising is an awesome tool! While I'm doing cardio, I usually listen to motivational speakers which has also been QUITE beneficial.

Happy training!

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Thanks for commenting, I find the idea of the workout sandwich of yoga-workout-meditation really interesting, and can really imagine it working well. Getting your body warmed up and your mind for used beforehand, and then cooling back down and relaxing back into life afterwards. A really good idea. I'll be trying this out :)

I haven't done much yoga before, is it something you can self teach with YouTube tutorials and stuff?