Most of us experienced it to some degree. You feel your chest tightening up, you break out in sweat and finding it hard to breath. It feels like you have knot in your stomach and your heart is beating so fast it feels like it is going to to jump out of your chest.
I just described the most severe form of anxiety. At some point we will all experience this sensation, and it is normally as a result of very stressful, and sometimes sudden event. For most people it will only happens occasionally and not the extend I just described.
However, for a large number of people this is a real problem. They suffer from what is called, chronic anxiety syndrome. I am one of them. I already described the symptoms of anxiety, but what is it and what causes it?
I am not going to go into detailed descriptions and bore you with details. There is more than enough information you can find online. In general, anxiety can be defined as the excessive fear experienced as a reaction to either external factors or sometimes "medical condition or predisposition".
There are various forms of chronic anxiety, but the important thing to note is that people experiencing this disorder, experience it so often and to such an extent, that it can have a severe and debilitating effect on normal daily life.
One thing it is not however, is an illness or disease. It simply is an disorder that is very hard or sometimes almost impossible for some people to control.
Normally anxiety is build up over time by everyday stress, or can be caused by a sudden traumatic event. As mentioned, most of us experience this to some extend at some points in our life.
For some people, there may be an underlying medical condition. A certain percentage of individuals are just genetically predisposed to experiencing anxiety. (This seems to be hereditary, and can be determined by studying the person's family history.) Studies has also shown that people with abnormal levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, which cause an imbalance in brain chemistry, are also more prone to anxiety disorders.
In some cases, as in mine, anxiety can appear out of the blue in the form of a panic attack. There seems to be no external event or underlying medical condition that seems to trigger it. For instance, I may sit on the couch listening to music, when all these physical symptoms I described in my opening paragraph, appears "from nowhere".
All in all, there are a variety of causes, and lot more questions than answers remain. It is just important to note that it is a very real and serious disorder that affect more people than you may be aware of.
A whole book (literally) can be written about all the different approaches and treatment of anxiety and related disorders. I will just mention a few, and they can be roughly be divided into 2 sections.
Lifestyle and Holistic Approach: Holistic approaches like meditation and breathing exercises are used to control and reduce the frequency and severity of anxiety. Lifestyle choices, like avoiding unnecessary confrontational or stress inducing situations, and promoting activities like adequate and regular sleep, are actively pursued. Adequate sleep, for example, has been proven to promote a general sense of well-being which assists in reduces anxiety.
Medical: Through prescription medication, a variety of different anxiety disorders can be treated. From treatment for specific anxiety episodes, to long term treatments that help to control the frequency of anxiety are used. Sometimes, even antidepressants are used as a long term treatment for certain types of anxiety disorders.
Interesting Side Note: You may have noticed that I used the term "depression" more than once when discussing anxiety, and with good reason. For years, researchers in the medical field were able to showcase the similarities between the root causes of both disorders on a continuing basis. Although the symptoms of depression and anxiety seem to be worlds apart, the root cause seems to have a lot more in common. Many experts go as far as stating that the main cause for both disorders are exactly the same when looking at biochemical interactions and brain function. The fact that many anxiety disorders are treated with antidepressant medication, highlights this point. Therefore, when I point out the advantages of weight training to combat anxiety, take note that it is just as beneficial in reducing the effects of depression.)
Moving on, I would like address one uncomfortable issue when it comes to both anxiety and depression. It is one very unhealthy form of "treatment" many of us choose as coping mechanism, which is…
Alcohol and Anxiety
So who is guilty of going down this road? Let me be the first to put up my hand. Those of you who already read my life story (you can read it here), will know I mentioned a few "bad habits" I had in my past. Well, this is one of them.
I am not going to make a deal of it, but just make a case as to how easy it is to use the wrong solution like alcohol to deal with stress, more specifically anxiety in my case, and how quickly it can spiral out of control. Soon after moving into my new apartment close to my new job in my early twenties, I started to feel the stress of work and the ever increasing responsibilities of everyday adult life.
Having a glass of wine in the evenings after work seemed to have a very calming effect. Not too long after that I needed a second glass of wine to have the same effect, which turned into three a few months later. Not wanting to feel like I am drinking too much, I changed to using bigger wine glasses to consume "the same" amount every day. The size changed yet again at a later stage that could hold the same amount of liquid as a coffee mug!
Let's just say I finished up consuming the equivalent of 3-4 bottles of wine. Yet, I convinced myself I didn't have problem. After all, I only drank in the evenings after 6pm and never changed to more potent alcoholic drinks like whiskey or vodka.
Nevermind the fact that I started feeling horrible most mornings, battled to get out of bed and had to find excuses to call in sick for the day or show up late for work. I walked around with bloated stomach and face and were feeling nauseous more often than none. My eyes were constantly sore and bloodshot, and I needed more eye drops than I can remember to make life tolerable. To make things worse, I started getting anxious more often than I used to, and experienced it more severely.
Surely all these signs and symptoms should have served as enough of warning to stop? Well, try and tell an alcoholic who is set on denying he/she has a problem and need to find any excuse for drink, to stop drinking.
I literally had to be yanked out of my delusion and address my problem very quickly, after a random blood test revealed I had serious problem and I was diagnosed (again) with Hodgkin's Lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes). I was told by my specialist if I have more drink, I could die. (Yes, he was obviously over-exaggerating the situation to scare me, but it worked and I stopped drinking and went cold turkey that same night.)
"Ever heard of term, "alcohol anxiety"? Neither did I until I realized it was one of the side effects of my unhealthy little habit, making an already bad situation much worse. As I mentioned earlier, after following my drinking routine every night, I started feeling more anxious more quickly, especially after the effects of alcohol, and found it harder to control. Well, that is "alcohol anxiety" in a nutshell.
So, why am I bringing up alcohol abuse in an article about anxiety and exercise? Simply for two big reasons. First, it is SO easy to fall into the trap of abusing the wrong type of "solution", especially alcohol, when you are battling with anxiety. It starts as an innocent way of coping, but gets out of control very quickly, and is a vicious circle extremely difficult to break out of.
Secondly, and tying in with my first point, is that you DO need some way of coping with the symptoms of chronic anxiety. And no, using prescription medication is not nearly enough on its own or a complete solution to the problem. The outlet and release that exercise (specifically weight training) provides for all the pent-up anxiety and energy, can just not be matched.
In my opinion, there is no healthier and more productive way of dealing with the symptoms, and in some cases even the root causes of anxiety, than a healthy exercise regime. Obviously part reason I am advocating exercise so strongly, is that it literally saved me from going back to my old habits, especially after recovering from cancer and having to face everyday life again. And as you should know, the stress and pressure you are confronted with day after day, year after year, will NEVER go away. And if you want to see exercise as just another "crutch" to lean on, I am perfectly fine with it. This is the one "crutch" or coping mechanism I will gladly embrace.
How Exercise Help Reduce And Control Anxiety
By now, you should have formed a general idea as to how exercise helps to alleviate and sometimes prevents the symptoms of anxiety on many levels. But how exactly does it manage it achieve this?
Exercise is not a cure for anxiety in any form. Let's be clear about it. But exercise, especially weight training, can play an invaluable part in how you experience and cope with anxiety until it pass.
It plays an important role through a direct and indirect means.
Basically it works on 4 levels to dramatically reduce the effects of stress:
- 1Vigorous exercise quickly acts to reduce the tension and tightness that build up throughout your body as a result of stress and panic attacks.
- 2Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, the "feel good" hormone crucial in fighting off emotional pain and stress. This immediately starts to counteract the effects and symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks.
- 3Studies further found that sustained exercise decreases one's sensitivity to the body's reaction to anxiety. It also discovered that exercise also decreases the frequency, as well as intensity of panic attacks under certain circumstances.
- 4As a result of a reduction in these stress hormones that occur as a result of exercise, one's overall sense of well-being may be greatly improved.
I can personally testify to all 4 these facts. Whenever I experience severe anxiety, and the situation and time allows it, it is the ideal signal for me to hit the gym. The one "advantage" of the pent-up stress and energy developed through anxiety, is that you have so much more energy to realise and take out on the weights.
One of the first things I notice, is how tense your body is when you start training. You don't realize it as much when inactive, but when you start exercising with weights that put resistance on your muscle, you quickly find out how "tightly wound-up" you are. Within 10 minutes of vigorous training I can already start feeling my muscles relaxing.
I can testify to the other advantages as well, but the ONE thing I want to focus on, is the importance of the endorphins released during my workouts. In all honesty I cannot think of a single exercise session where I didn’t feel much better afterwards, than I did before my workout. Almost everyone who experienced that euphoric feeling after a vigorous exercise session, will know what I am referring to.
I have been going into training sessions feeling "completely stressed", tired and overworked or even very depressed due to some external factors. I sometimes even have to force myself to go, as more often than I care to admit, I just feel too drained, tired or depressed to do it spontaneously.
But I can also add, that not once did I regret forcing myself to do it. I am always glad I pushed through an exercise routine afterwards. I feel better and more positive about everything and my whole sense of well-being are vastly improved, relaxing after a training session. I also seem to be able to think more clearly and be more alert. Somehow exercise seems to also clean up all the cobwebs in your head that build up throughout the day. And this is just not personal experience, it has actually been scientifically proven. Go ahead, Google it!
There are numerous other advantages of exercise, both directly and indirectly. It improves sleep and sleep patterns, which has proven to reduce stress and anxiety. It has also shown to deplete the level of cortisol, the hormone released by your body under stressful conditions that is closely associated with anxiety disorders. These are just a few examples of the additional benefits of working out / exercising.
In summary, the importance and advantage of exercising to combat anxiety disorders cannot be dismissed. As I already mentioned, it is not cure by any means, but goes a long way to help you live a happy and relatively stress free life.
To read a personal account, you can read my story here. I hope you found this article helpful, especially if you are battling anxiety on a daily basis. To be honest, I feel a little embarrassed mentioning my alcohol misuse. I think it’s the first time I actually wrote or express it in so many words. Oh well, admitting it too myself was harder than everyone else knowing it. But if it helps only one person, or make him/her aware of this danger and realize that there are better and healthier ways of dealing with anxiety, it would be more than worth it.
As always, feel free to leave me a comment or suggestion, and remember to join my mailing list to get informed whenever a new article is released, as well as helpful hints & tips and news on new developments.
Until next time, get motivated and stay motivated, I dare you.