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How Exercise Can Stop The Virus Of Fear

It sounds like a cliche, but it’s just that…an idea, an idea.  And it’s not just an idea; I have experienced it firsthand–seeing the effects of exercising on me and others is a powerful reminder I try to give to other sufferers of a fear disorder.  It shows me that there are many other options that might help our symptoms–especially when used in conjunction with counseling and support.  I like to tell people with social phobias about this.  “You might not have found your cure yet, but there are many more ways you can improve your life.”

In psychiatry, researchers are learning that physical activity may be more powerful than antidepressants in treating certain psychiatric disorders. In a study published in December 2012 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, those patients who were active in an aerobic exercise program saw an improvement in their symptoms compared to a placebo group.  The reason is that the activity increases the body’s “nervous arousal threshold”–this is the point of no return for the body’s fear response.

Why Exercise Works

Exercise is good because physical activity raises the levels of several neurotransmitters , such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and epinephrine.  Norepinephrine is necessary for anxiety, so it’s obvious that getting exercise will help your body feel better.  Epinephrine is the body’s “fight or flight” hormone, so getting exercise will help your body prepare to fight or flee, and this will help reduce your level of anxiety.

There are plenty of studies showing that exercise is beneficial for other psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety.  There even appears to be a link between exercise and the reduction in symptoms of panic disorder.  Interestingly, researchers have discovered that it depends upon which neurotransmitter is elevated.  The most prominent neurotransmitter increase is norepinephrine in patients with panic disorder–though exercise also increased the amount of dopamine, which also occurs in panic disorder.  Epinephrine seems to increase in people with agoraphobia and social anxiety disorder.  So yes, exercise does work; it is more potent than antidepressants, and it works without drugs.

Why It’s More Effective

There are two primary reasons why exercise is more effective for certain psychiatric disorders than medications.  First, exercise increases the amount of neurotransmitters, which means more options for using them.  Second, exercise helps to decrease emotional arousal–anxiety is a direct response to stress, so exercise helps to reduce your level of arousal and reduce your feeling of anxiety.

To see how exercise works for various disorders, I’ve researched the results of over two dozen studies comparing exercise to medications in patients with panic disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, and depression.  The results were overwhelming.  Not only did exercise help improve symptoms for these two disorders, but it significantly reduced symptoms compared to medications (both with and without serotonin reuptake inhibitors–drugs that help prevent or treat anxiety and depression).

This study shows that physical exercise can produce significant improvement in anxiety disorders.

It only took 12 weeks for this study to show that exercise reduces depression symptoms from the beginning to the end.  But that’s actually the longest the average depression studies ever lasted!  That’s because many of the other studies that show exercise helps people with depression took years to complete.

There are several specific reasons that exercise can be effective for depression: (1) exercise has both physical and emotional benefits.   By its very nature, exercise increases motivation and improves both the ability to do and the quality of life. As I’ve written about before , there is a powerful positive emotion associated with exercise, an energy that can be used in many things, such as building relationships or writing. (That positive emotion may be referred to as “altruism,” so it’s important to know it exists.)   It produces a sense of belonging and community that can reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and help improve sleep and appetite.  In a study with depressed patients, exercise increased positive emotions and mood, and helped to reduce depression symptoms.