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.

Why I No Longer Believe There’s Something Wrong with Me

By Zachary Goodson

Our thoughts create our beliefs, meaning if you think about yourself a certain way for a long enough period of time you will ultimately believe it.” ~Anonymous

You’re ugly. You’re stupid. You’re a loser. 

Imagine thinking this way about yourself every day. No exaggeration. That was me.

When a girl didn’t want to go on a second date with me, I told myself I was ugly. When I didn’t know what someone was talking about, I told myself I was stupid. When my Instagram post only received two likes, I told myself I was loser.

I spoon-fed myself toxic thoughts like these on a daily basis for years. And what’s worse is I believed them.

But why? Where do these toxic thoughts and beliefs even come from? Well, for most of us they come from our childhoods, and they are largely based on experiences with our caregivers. 

My belief system (which fuels those not-so-nice thoughts listed above) was formed by the tragic death of my mother when I was three-and-a-half years old and by my rageaholic cocaine-addict father. I internalized Mom’s death and Dad’s crazy behavior (trust me, it was bad) the only way I knew how to: I thought I was the problem.

You see, my dad never sat me down and apologized for bursting into my room in the middle of the night high on cocaine and torturing me. He never apologized for not allowing me to celebrate my birthdays. He never apologized for making me get in front of my soccer team and tell them that I was a bad boy and couldn’t play in that week’s game.

Since he never apologized to me, my growing little mind took it personally and figured I must be the problem. I thought I deserved to be punished and as such, a negative thought pattern was born.

Like a kid at school writing on a chalkboard because he did something wrong, my thoughts wrote in my mind over and over again: I did something wrong. I did something wrong. 

This consistent negative self-talk eventually turned into a core belief: I am wrong. I am wrong.   

Imagine growing up believing that your very existence is wrong. That was me. I was hard-wired by my parents to believe this. It was like being sentenced for a crime that I didn’t commit.

As an adult I actively looked for validation in other people as a result of this belief. I became a people-pleaser, a yes man, a guy that would do anything for you to like me. Please like me, please tell me I’m okay.

If you liked me, I felt less broken, but one person liking me was never enough. If I was in a room with 100 people and all of them but one liked me I would worry and fret, wondering what I had done to upset that one person.

I also thought I had to be perfect in every area of my life. My hair had to be perfect. My clothes had to be perfect.

I had to say the right things. Do the right things. Be the right thing.

I also used each failed attempt for your validation as proof that I was broken. See!

I would go to bed at night saying I was done with that kind behavior, yet I would wake up in the morning and start it all over again. It was like the movie Groundhog Day. I was living the same day over and over again, and I couldn’t stop.

I hit what I’ll call my rock bottom eight years ago when I was thirty-seven-years old. I hated myself and the life I had created and desperately wanted change.

But how? How do we let go of deeply rooted false beliefs that no longer serve us? The same way we formed them.

You begin by detaching from the individual thoughts that reinforce the negative belief, then you let go of the belief all together. I’ve heard them called illusions, false beliefs, and even lies. It took time for me to believe these lies and it took time for me to undo them.

Henry David Thoreau said, “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

In order to let go of false beliefs, we have to practice observing our thoughts and recognize when we are acting on old stories about our worth. By repeatedly choosing not to get caught up in the old stories, we can begin to experience the world in a new way.

You don’t go to the gym once and suddenly you’re in the best shape of your life. No, you go five to six times a week, eat healthy, and get plenty of rest. And you do this over and over again.

The same goes for our minds. The more we work toward mindfulness and self-kindness, the quicker we will default to it. When you catch yourself having a negative thought, recognize that you don’t have to get attached to it and choose to let it pass. If you’re having trouble letting it go, tell yourself a new, more empowering story.

And above all else, just remember, it had nothing to do with you. You did nothing wrong. You are not flawed. 

I didn’t commit a crime. I just absorbed the information given to me the only way my eight-year-old mind knew how to.

So where do we start? It’s different for all of us, but if you’re reading this and relating to any of it then that in and of itself is a start. That’s the beginning of self-awareness.

For me it was all about becoming self-aware. That was my first step toward personal change.

I knew I couldn’t do things on my own (been there, tried that), so I started with a twelve-step program. Liberation would never be possible if I kept reaching for validation from other people, so I took a deep breath and courageously stepped into my first meeting and admitted that I had a problem.

It was there that I opened up and allowed myself to be seen for who I was: a wounded man who sometimes still felt like a scared little boy. Eventually, little by little, I shared my childhood secrets and I was loved for doing so. It was an eye opening experience, which immediately changed my thought process to: I did nothing wrong.

For the last eight years I’ve been letting go of false thoughts and beliefs, which in turn has created new possibilities for how I think and feel in relationships. I hope you can do the same.

About Zachary Goodson

Zachary is a writer, a coach, and a heart-centered entrepreneur who loves helping others. His writing focuses on his experiences around holistic health, inner child work, addiction, recovery, spirituality, and fatherhood. His coaching is devoted to helping people experience deep fulfillment in relationships, career, and life. You can connect with him at zacharygoodson.com.Web | More Posts

Are you experiencing compassion fatigue?

As psychologists continue to help those suffering from the impact of COVID-19, they should watch for signs of their own distress or burnout. By Rebecca A. Clay Date created: June 11, 2020

Psychologist Heidi Allespach, PhD, of the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, knows that the big hearts that propel people into psychology and other caregiving careers also put them at risk of developing compassion fatigue. Ironically, she explains, caregivers can become so over-empathic that they find themselves growing numb to their patients’ suffering. That’s why she urges the medical residents she teaches to develop what she calls a “semi-permeable membrane” around their hearts. “Without enough of a shield, everything just comes in,” says Allespach. “And being overwhelmed with the feelings of others can feel like drowning.”

Now Allespach and other psychologists are worried that psychologists are facing increased risks of compassion fatigue as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on.

Compassion fatigue occurs when psychologists or others take on the suffering of patients who have experienced extreme stress or trauma, explains Charles R. Figley, PhD, founder of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University. It is an occupational hazard of “any professionals who use their emotions, their heart,” he says, and represents the psychological cost of healing others. “It’s like a dark cloud that hangs over your head, goes wherever you go and invades your thoughts,” he says.

Compassion fatigue doesn’t just make it difficult to feel empathy for your patients, says Kerry A. Schwanz, PhD, of Coastal Carolina University. One component of the condition is burnout, which is associated with too much work and not enough resources to do that work well. Burnout can result in depression and anxiety, physical and emotional exhaustion, less enjoyment of work, and more arguing. Another component of compassion fatigue is secondary traumatic stress, or indirect exposure to trauma via helping others. “I sometimes refer to this component as ‘empathy overload,’” says Schwanz, adding that symptoms include anxiety, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance, numbness or feelings of having nothing left to give.

To keep compassion fatigue from developing or to address it if it does, compassion fatigue experts suggest that psychologists do the following.

Recognize the signs

“Psychologists and other people in helping roles really do forget that they’re vulnerable,” says Schwanz, explaining that psychologists are trained to be empathic but also to put their own emotions aside. If psychologists suspect they are experiencing compassion fatigue, Schwanz recommends they assess themselves with the free Professional Quality of Lifemeasure developed by psychologist Beth Hudnall Stamm, PhD. This self-report tool covers symptoms, such as loss of productivity, depression, intrusive thoughts, jumpiness, tiredness, feelings of being on edge or trapped, or inability to separate personal and professional life. The measure also assesses compassion satisfaction—the positive emotions associated with helping others, such as happiness, pride and satisfaction.

Make self-care part of a routine

Psychologists should adopt the mantra of flight attendants: “Put your own oxygen mask on before helping others,” says psychologist Amy M. Williams, PhD, of the Henry Ford Health System. Good self-care means developing a routine that makes each day predictable and that includes what Williams calls the big five of self-care: adequate sleep, healthy nutrition, physical activity, relaxation and socializing. The schedule should also include five minutes for a self check-in each morning to assess tension in the body and worries in the mind. “Don’t do it 10 minutes before bed, when the mind spins off into worry,” she suggests.

Examine beliefs about self-care

It’s not enough to just go through the motions of self-care, emphasizes Schwanz. It needs to be a legitimate attempt. “In our society, we applaud people who work themselves to death, who neglect their own self-care to help others,” says Schwanz. “We rarely applaud people for taking the day off.” Psychologists may have internalized this message, viewing self-care as selfish, says Schwanz, who is studying such beliefs’ relationship with compassion fatigue. As a result, psychologists may not reap the benefit of any self-care efforts they make, because they engage in behaviors such as worrying about work on a day off. And psychologists shouldn’t feel guilty about taking time for fun and laughter during this sad, anxious time, adds Thomas Skovholt, PhD, of the University of Minnesota. Playing games, watching funny movies and the like can replenish the energy needed to help others, he says. Even a tiny dose of positive emotion, such as noticing flowers blooming, can help.

Practice self-compassion

Psychologists are having a hard time along with everyone else, says Allespach, and that’s unusual. Most psychologists are now experiencing the same problems their patients are experiencing—worries about safety, uncertainty, financial concerns and disrupted routines. “Psychologists are usually the rocks in the river of life’s uncertainty for our patients, but right now, we’re in that river with them,” she says. “For those of us in the helping professions, we’re trying to help our patients make sense of this strange new reality while doing that ourselves.” That unusual situation can increase psychologists’ stress, says Allespach. But so can psychologists’ own tendencies, says psychologist Anna Baranowsky, PhD, founder of Toronto’s Traumatology Institute, who says psychologists tend to be “over-copers.” “They are capable of working really hard and delivering great results,” says Baranowsky. “But they are very self-demanding and very focused on the perfection of what they’re delivering, until the point of total exhaustion.” It’s important for psychologists to take time to reflect—alone, with a trusted colleague, religious leader, or therapist—on any wounds that are surfacing during this uncertain time, she says. “You want to really respect the fact that you’re human, too,” she says. “Bearing witness to another person’s suffering ignites things within ourselves.” 

Create community

Connecting with like-minded others is another strategy that can help prevent compassion fatigue. “It may not sound fancy or sophisticated, but building community is the most powerful thing you can do,” says Geoffry White, PhD, a private practitioner in Los Angeles who has worked to prevent compassion fatigue in mental health practitioners responding after terrorism and war. In addition to staying connected with family and friends, psychologists could set up Zoom consultation or supervision groups to check in with each other and prevent and address signs of compassion fatigue. “Compared with other societies, the United States has a very mind-your-own business culture, prizing independence and self-reliance over community” says White. “But anything that takes away from that isolation—peer support—will help.”

Help colleagues

The pandemic is exacerbating what was already a crisis of burnout for health-care providers, say researchers and medical professionals at Texas A&M University and Houston Methodist Hospital. They found that intensive care unit workers are facing longer shifts, increased patient deaths, lack of personal protective equipment and financial fears among other stressors (Sasangohar, F., et al., Anesthesia and Analgesia, published online ahead of publication, 2020). Those stressors can also lead to compassion fatigue. If psychologists see signs that a colleague, whether another psychologist or a health-care professional, is developing compassion fatigue, they should check in, says Schwanz. Psychologists and trusted colleagues can give each other permission to point out potential problems and keep at it despite attempts to deflect or deny, says Schwanz. Schwanz herself has a self-care buddy. They text each other to check in on each other’s stress levels and to report daily acts of self-care, such as taking breaks and drinking enough water to stay hydrated.

It’s also important to normalize compassion fatigue, adds Williams. “You could say, ‘These are crazy times, and I’m struggling,’” she says. “Then ask, ‘Is that something you’re going through, too?’” In the support groups she runs, for example, participants often admit that they didn’t realize compassion fatigue is normal, and so they were hesitant to ask for help. Once they realize that feeling this way is normal for others, she says, they are more willing to talk about their struggles and to accept help. 

Focus on compassion satisfaction

Psychologists should celebrate the positives of helping others. “There can be terrible things going on, but focus on the wins,” suggests Schwanz, citing the celebrations health-care providers hold when patients come off ventilators. Focusing on gratitude can also help, she says.

Additional information

To learn more about compassion fatigue, read “Compassion Fatigue Resilience” or The Resilient Practitioner: Burnout and Compassion Fatigue Prevention and Self-care Strategies for the Helping Professions. There is also a special issue of the journal Traumatologydevoted to secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma.

Toronto’s Traumatology Instituteoffers online compassion fatigue specialist training and other resources. The institute also offers an entry-level online compassion fatigue resiliency and recovery training for students and community members.

Get more tips on self-care by reading about how to take care of yourself and avoid burnout. Or listen to a podcast on self-care. To earn continuing education credit, read the Monitor article “Are you burned out? Here are signs and what to do about them.”