Yep, Exercise Can Help Reduce Anxiety (Like, Right Now)

Medically reviewed by Daniel Bubnis, M.S., NASM-CPT, NASE Level II-CSS — Written by Jessica Booth on July 24, 2020PIN IT

Created for Greatist by the experts at Healthline. Read more

There are tons of anxiety treatments out there. But what if you want to reduce your stress levels, like, yesterday? Here’s how working out can curb your anxious feelings.

reduce anxiety with exercise

How does it actually work?

Working out 101

Simply put, exercise causes your brain to release feel-good chemicals. This helps boost energy and decreases stress levels. Working out can also alleviate feelings of depression and negativity, according to a 2020 study.

Happy chemicals

In the immortal words of Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde,” “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.”

Exercise does indeed spur the release of endorphins and decrease your levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Working out also produces brain chemicals called endocannabinoids — the same chemicals mimicked by cannabis. The increased dopamine levels might make you feel more optimistic.

Full body buzz

Exercise can work wonders for your noggin. Research shows exercise activates frontal regions of the brain that help control the amygdala. This can relieve pent-up feelings of tension, stress, and anxiety.

Regular exercise can also change the default state of your nervous system, making it more balanced. When you work out, your muscles release lactate. This changes the way you react to things that might normally cause anxiety.

What about panic attacks?

Studies show people who exercise regularly may be more resistant to acute anxiety. In some cases, exercise can decrease the intensity and frequency of panic attacks — heck yes!

5 workouts to calm anxiety

Any kind of exercise can have positive mental health effects. Still, you might prefer some workouts more than others. Here are some awesome options.

1. Running

Ever heard of a “runner’s high”? It’s somewhat legit. Running can calm your mind and have a lasting impact on feel-good neurotransmitters. Researchers believe this is because runners have the aerobic capacity to hold a steady pace for a long time. 

Building up your fitness level through regular running may also help protect against depression. Some research suggests that low cardiorespiratory fitness levels contribute to the onset of depression.

What does the science say?

In a small 2008 study, ultramarathoners, moderate regular exercisers, and nonexercisers walked or ran for 30 minutes. Everyone’smood improved after just one session.

Keep in mind that it might take some training before you can hit the high. Your body needs time to build stamina.

2. Yoga

Research shows a steady yoga practice can significantly reduce anxiety, stress, and symptoms of depression. 

Best benefits of yoga

2018 study found that yoga can increase mindfulness and feelings of satisfaction with life. The same study also found that yoga can:

  • lower heart rate
  • lower blood pressure
  • reduce stress responses
  • prevent anxiety and depression
  • increase energy and feelings of well-being

It’s also an awesome way to reduce anxiety while developing strength and breathing stamina.

3. Tai chi

This ancient Chinese martial art includes meditation and rhythmic breathing. One study found that tai chi can:

  • promote relaxation
  • lower blood pressure
  • reduce stress and anxiety
  • improve a depressed mood
  • increase endorphin levels

Meditate on it

Regular exercise provides mental health benefits similar to meditation.

4. A walk in the great outdoors

Whether you’re going for a nature walk or doing yoga in your yard, outdoor exercise has additional mental health benefits. A 2015 study found that young adults who went on a 50-minute nature walk felt less anxious afterward.

Nature perks

2009 study found that participants who did a 20-minute nature walk had lower stress hormone levels than participants who were in the city.

Time in nature can:

  • lower pulse rate
  • lower blood pressure
  • lower levels of cortisol
  • lower sympathetic nerve activity

5. Make it a family affair

Happy hour is great, but exercising together is bomb. A 2017 studyfound that group movement releases endorphins. Research has also found that exercising with friends motivates us to develop healthy behaviors. Double win!

Give these group workouts a go:

  • yoga
  • cycling
  • walking
  • hiking
  • biking
  • dance
  • kickboxing
  • water aerobics

Keep it moving

You don’t need to commit to hour-long workout seshes on the daily. Research suggests that exercising for about 30 minutes three or four times per week can be enough to improve mood.

Motivation tips:

  • Do something you enjoy. If you hate your workout, you’re not going to put your all into it. Pick an activity that keeps your attention. 
  • Don’t consider it a chore. Instead, view it as a way to feel happier and more confident. 
  • Find distractions. A 30-minute session on the elliptical will fly by when you’re watching a TV show or rocking out to a bangin’ playlist. 
  • Work out with a friend.Group workouts can increase feelings of joy. Planning exercise dates will also hold you more accountable. 
  • Put it in your planner.Make it feel like something you can’t miss instead of a last-minute decision. 
  • Work out where you feel comfortable. You don’t have to join a gym. You can have a killer workout in the comfort of your own home.
  • Be patient with the process. Set small, realistic goals. This will motivate you to hit your targets and keep going strong.

Try a different approach

Is exercise not cutting it? Don’t worry. Working out isn’t your only option. There are other ways to reduce anxiety ASAP.

Progressive relaxation

This technique can be uber-relaxing. Research has shown it’s an effective way to ease anxiety and depression.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Tense and release each muscle group in your body, starting at your toes and working your way up.
  2. Try to keep your mind space clear.
  3. Focus on your breath.

Four-square breathing

Four-square breathing (aka box breathing) is a mindful breath exercise. It can help you chill out ASAP.

Try this:

  1. Sit upright.
  2. Slowly inhale through your nose.
  3. Hold your breath for a slow count of four.
  4. Slowly exhale through your mouth.
  5. Hold your breath for a count of four.
  6. Repeat as needed.

Listen to your favorite song

What’s a song that makes you feel happy no matter what? Turn it up! Research suggests music can lower levels of cortisol and ease stress and anxiety.

Write it out

Journaling can be therapeutic AF. Writing out your thoughts is a good way to explore what you’re feeling. This can help you process the roots of your anxiety.

Get creative

Art therapy can reduce stress and help you manage negative emotions. Do anything that tickles your creative fancy. Grab an adult coloring book, play an instrument, paint, or take an online art class.null

One step at a time

If you’re feeling that anxious itch, a workout might be just what you need to de-stress. Science says working out may help lessen anxiety while giving you a boost of energy.

The goal is to feel better, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself if you’re not up for a full workout. Start slow, experiment with types of movement, and enjoy the ride.

WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER

An Excerpt from Radical Acceptanceby Tara Brach

There are times when we say the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time — we lose our cool, we blame our mistakes on others, or we aren’t really hearing what the other person is saying. Then what?

In some cases, the key to self-compassion doesn’t come as we might expect — by focusing on ourselves. According to Buddhist teacher Tara Brach, a “compassion practice” can come more readily by connecting with, and softening to, the suffering of those around us. In the excerpt below from Tara’s best-selling book Radical Acceptance, we see firsthand how opening to others’ stories and difficulties can bring us back to our own hearts.  

Kim arrived at a New Year’s retreat on “Awakening the Heart of Compassion” feeling utterly humiliated from a mishap at work. After printing out five thousand brochures for her company, she found that she had missed several very obvious typos. In a nasty exchange with a coworker, Kim had defensively tried to deflect some of the blame, suggesting that if he had covered the phones instead of staying so long at the holiday luncheon, maybe she wouldn’t have been so distracted. She punctuated her remarks by angrily sweeping a neatly piled stack of brochures off her desk. Now, alone with her own mind, Kim found herself rerunning this scene, squirming with shame as she recalled the tone of her voice and how she had just stood and watched as her coworker stooped to collect the brochures.

In our first interview, I encouraged her to let go of the story and just drop down into the feelings of fear and shame as they arose in her body and mind. She told me she felt a deep ache in her chest and a vise around her throat. Using as a base the traditional compassion meditation we had introduced at the retreat, I guided Kim to begin with awakening compassion for herself. “Holding those painful areas with care, you might repeat the phrases you learned: ‘I care about this suffering. May I be free of suffering.’”

When I could see that Kim had relaxed, I asked if she could think of any family members or friends who’d also felt embarrassed by mistakes and emotional reactivity. Kim brought to mind her mother and her brother. As she remembered times when they’d felt ashamed and humiliated, Kim felt a welling up of tenderness for them. Thinking of her mother and brother, Kim silently whispered to them: “I care about your suffering; may you be free from suffering.”When we reflect on the suffering of others, we realize we are not alone in our pain.

Continuing with the compassion practice, Kim expanded the circle of her caring by bringing to mind people she was familiar with but didn’t know well — others at the retreat, people she saw working out at the gym, parents of her children’s friends. Still feeling the rawness of her own self-doubt, Kim could imagine how some version of that same fear she was feeling might live behind the aloofness or arrogance, busyness or defensiveness she noticed in some of them. As she let in a sense of each person’s vulnerability and offered her prayer of care, Kim felt an intimate bond arising.

With her heart feeling more open, Kim brought to mind the coworker with whom she’d felt so irritated. She remembered the hurt look in his eyes when she lashed out. She recalled his habitual look of worry, his physical tightness and self-deprecating remarks and recognized that he too feared being unworthy and incompetent. Kim felt a surge of remorse and then sadness as she realized she had probably struck him in a very vulnerable spot. With a full and focused attention she continued for the next few moments offering him her care, praying that he might be free of fear.

I guided Kim to the last step in the compassion practice — opening her heart and attention boundlessly, extending care to all beings who suffer, to all who feel insecure and alienated. When Kim finished the meditation and opened her eyes, her face had softened and her body had relaxed. Sitting back in her chair now, she rested her hands openly and easily in her lap. She gave me a smile that was both sad and sweet and said, “When I remember that other people feel the same kind of insecurity that I do, then it’s not like I’m bad — I’m just human.” She paused and then added, “I can feel how we’re all in it together.”

This practice of intentionally reflecting on suffering — our own and that of others — is the basic form of Buddhist compassion meditations. We include the suffering of those we cherish, those we barely know, those we find difficult and those we have never met, out to the widest circle. While we might not formally reflect on those in each domain during every meditation, the practice deepens our capacity for compassion. As Kim found, when we reflect on the suffering of others, we realize we are not alone in our pain. We are connected through our vulnerability.“When I remember that other people feel the same kind of insecurity that I do, then it’s not like I’m bad — I’m just human.”

Without a genuine willingness to let in the suffering of others, our spiritual practice remains empty. Father Theophane, a Christian mystic, writes about an incident that happened when he took some time off from his regular parish duties for spiritual renewal at a remote monastery. Having heard of a monk there who was widely respected for his wisdom, he sought him out. Theophane had been forewarned that this wise man gave advice only in the form of questions. Eager to receive his own special contemplation, Theophane approached the monk: “I am a parish priest and am here on retreat. Could you give me a question to meditate on?”

“Ah, yes,” the wise man answered. “My question for you is: What do they need?” A little disappointed, Theophane thanked him and went away. After a few hours of meditating on the question and feeling as if he were getting nowhere, he decided to go back to the teacher. “Excuse me,” he began, “perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Your question has been helpful, but I wasn’t so much interested in thinking about my apostolate during this retreat. Rather I wanted to think seriously about my own spiritual life. Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?” “Ah, I see,” answered the wise man. “Then, my question is, What do they really need?”

Like so many of us, Father Theophane had assumed that true spiritual reflection focuses on our solitary self. But as the wise man reminded him, spiritual awakening is inextricably involved with others. As Theophane focused on the needs of those he had been given to serve, he would recognize their vulnerability and longing for love — and realize that their needs were no different from his own. The question the wise man suggested was wonderfully crafted for awakening in Theophane the true spiritual depth that comes from paying close attention to other human beings.

New psychology research shows early life stress doesn’t have to be extreme to affect emotional processing

New research provides evidence that experiences of early life stress are associated with atypical responses towards emotional facial expressions in adulthood. The findings have been published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

“One of the things that drives me as a researcher is how we can improve the experiences of people with mental illness, by developing better treatments and clearer knowledge of these health conditions,” explained Elizabeth Kirkham (@EK_Neuro), a research associate at the University of Edinburgh and the corresponding author of the study.

“Early life stress and trauma are a huge factor in the development of mental illness later in life – I think society in general is still not aware of how close the relationship between early stress and later health (mental and physical) really is. If we can understand more about early life stress then we can understand more about how mental illness develops, which in turn will help us find better ways of reducing the suffering of people living with mental health conditions.”

In the study, 395 participants completed the Child Abuse and Trauma Scale after being shown photographs depicting angry, happy, and neutral facial expressions. The participants indicated the extent to which they would approach the person in the image and the extent to which they would avoid the person.

The researchers found that participants who experienced more stressful life events in childhood and adolescence tended to be less avoidant of people with angry facial expressions.

“Our results were surprising — that early life stress is associated with reduced, not increased, avoidance of anger in people with no signs of mental ill health. This is the opposite of what we expected,” Kirkham told PsyPost.

But Kirkham said the findings indicate that early life stress “doesn’t have to be extreme to affect emotional processing. Very few of the people in our study had histories of extreme trauma or neglect, yet the stress that they did experience as children was linked to both their mental health and their responses to emotional information as adults.”

“This is important when we think about our social environment — investing in the quality of children’s early life is likely to pay dividends later on in terms of the health of the wider society.”

The relationship between early life stress and reduced avoidance of angry facial expressions was not found among participants who showed signs of depression and anxiety. More depressed participants, however, did tend to be more avoidant of happy facial expressions.

“We were also surprised that that was no relationship between early life stress and avoidance of anger amongst people with evidence of mental illness, even though the expected relationship between depression and avoidance of happy facial expressions was present,” Kirkham said.

“Therefore it’s important that additional work is carried out to examine what is going on here and why the effects of early life stress are different from what might have been predicted from previous research. I suspect it might be connected to the fact that previous research has focused on children with extreme early life stress, whereas we focused on adults with relatively low levels of early life stress.”

“I’d be very happy to hear from researchers or students who share my interest in early life stress and its effects on the adult brain. There’s still a lot to be discovered within this field,” Kirkham added.

The study, “Early life stress is associated with reduced avoidance of threatening facial expressions“, was authored by Elizabeth J. Kirkham and Liat Levita.