Exercise is so overlooked as a remedy for mental health.
During these unprecedented times, people’s anxiety is on the up. Mental strains are real and your mind gets tired too. It’s important to look at what’s going on and what you can do about it.
Let’s not dwell on the doom and gloom, instead we shall seize the moment and look at the positives and how exercise can actually be a superb remedy for anxiety, stress, depression and everything in between.
Anxiety – Is an emotion characterised by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.
Stress – In a medical or biological context stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure).
Panic disorder – Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterised by recurrent unexpected panic attacks. Panic attacks are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, numbness, or a feeling that something terrible is going to happen.
Anxiety, stress and panic can be a terrible thing. Mix all 3 together and it can be very difficult to function.
Chronic stress & anxiety can WRECK your health
Let’s take a look at what happens in your brain when you encounter a perceived threat such as a car horn surprising you during a walk. Your hypothalamus, which is a tiny region sitting at your brain’s base, triggers an alarm response in your body.
Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is a hormone and when it is secreted it increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Imagine if you are stressed and on edge all the time, adrenaline levels are high and your body and mind will eventually get tired of operating on this level.
My real life story…
I would like to give you my experience of stress, anxiety and panic disorder and how exercise is an incredible remedy, to hopefully inspire you and prove there is a way up when you think you are at rock bottom.
Stress and anxiety can mount up over time due to lifestyle choices and external things which happen to you. In 2013, I was in a desk job that I didn’t really enjoy, I was plodding along and my mental state was becoming more and more unhealthy. Exercise wasn’t on my agenda and I had only sort of tinkered around in the gym before. My motivation for daily life was disappearing and I was finding little joy in things. Around Summer time, unfortunately I was involved in a nasty car accident which I was lucky enough to walk away from, but not lucky enough to get away without any mental scarring. Due to the trauma it became apparent that I was too anxious to drive again or be driven anywhere. This anxiety resulted in me not being able to function at work without medication and eventually not being able to drive to work anymore. I quit my job and sunk into a very dark hole where I couldn’t leave the house. I cancelled social events, let friends down – you name it, i was losing it. I developed panic disorder and could barely eat, this was probably due to the amounts of adrenaline released into the brain because of the ‘fight or flight’ response to panic triggers.
It’s safe to say this was the worst time of my life. I was struggling to see a way out. Luckily I found a great psychologist who helped me understand what was happening in the brain and he taught me strategies to start battling through the extreme anxiety panic I was suffering every day. More importantly he recommended I try exercise to help. Luckily I had worked with the psychologist enough to develop strategies to get me out the house. A friend took me to the local gym for a look round, I sat at the desk and the lady gave me a fitness magazine to look through. In it I saw some women on stage in bodybuilding shows. I couldn’t believe these women looked so amazing, strong and confident. I immediately wanted a slice of the pie. I’d found my motivation to exercise and train hard. With that I began to read and research about developing a shape like this. Little did I know this dedication to exercise and fitness would be the thing to change my life for the better. I began to build up my training day by day and week by week. My Mental Health was improving at last. I was feeling better and more confident. As the months went by my body was stronger and so was my mind. I managed to return to work and I competed in my first bodybuilding show. Since then I have competed a total of 4 times and I run a successful personal training and fitness writing business. I am also an exercise referral specialist.
Because of this, I am a huge supporter of exercise as a way to eliminate stress and anxiety.
Here’s why exercise helped to put the puzzle back together…
A matter of Cortisol
Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with the brain regions that control mood, motivation and fear.
Studies have proven that exercise is very effective in improving memory and cognition in cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s Dementia. Adults who engage in regular physical activity experience fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms, thus supporting the notion that exercise offers a protective effect against the development of mental disorders.
Other studies have shown that low intensity exercise actually resulted in a reduction in circulating cortisol levels. Evidence proves that exercise reduces cortisol levels promoting better mental health.
It boosts endorphins
It goes without saying that exercise may be considered as a psychoactive drug. Many people swear by exercise to get their ‘fix’, to make them feel good. In moderate, healthy doses, it causes very pronounced relaxing effects on the majority of the population.
The danger lies in having exercise as your only release as some people can be addicted to this endorphin rush if it’s the only happiness they are getting from life. Try to use it instead as a way to appreciate other things in your life and focus on having a well balanced daily life.
Research has shown elevated endorphin concentrations induced by exercise have since been linked to a variety of psychological and physiological changes, including mood state changes and ‘exercise-induced euphoria’, altered pain perception and responses to numerous stress hormones (growth hormone, ACTH, prolactin, catecholamines and cortisol).
It has also been shown that exercise enhances learning and memory function, promotes better quality of sleep and can also counteract the mental decline that comes with age.
A focus & motivation
Having a focus or a goal is fantastic motivation. It allows you to keep pushing forward for a reason. My goal was to get up on stage in a bodybuilding show, and I achieved it. No matter what your goal or focus is use it to remind yourself every day why you are pushing yourself. I love to keep a focus diary. Every day write in your diary the achievements of the day, be it a healthy meal, an exercise session, reading a book, anything at all because you can class so many things as small wins. Doing this will positively reinforce your mind every day and help to relieve stress and anxiety.
Don’t let stress and anxiety beat you. Nobody can go back to start a new beginning, but ANYONE can start today to make a new ending.
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