It’s no secret that anxiety and depression are on the rise across the population. I experienced my first panic attack at 16 years old, during my GCSE’s. As an incredibly competitive person, I was constantly anxious about doing the best I could, while matching grades with friends to prove to myself that I could do it. I guess you could say that I get anxious with time pressures and wanting to do my best.
When the GCSE’s passed, so did the anxiety and panic attacks, until 2016. Since 2016, I have had panic attacks and severe anxiety. While I managed to stop panic attacks themselves (to some degree), due to a greater understanding of what they actually are, I now find that instead, I get many different physical symptoms instead. If you also get anxiety, you will be familiar with such sensations: trembling legs, feelings of dizziness, blurred vision and shortness of breath just to name a few! If you’ve experienced this also, you will understand how incredibly uncomfortable it is, and often, it results in agoraphobia and panic disorder, and thus the cycle does not break and you wonder if you’ll ever go back to your ‘old self’.
The most common solution to anxiety and depression is to take medication, for example Prozac. Personally, I have never wanted to take medication. While I can understand why someone would want to be on medication, to me, it just conceals the problem that you’re not addressing, the thoughts and fears you are having in the mind. Instead, I have explored all other avenues, such as aerobic exercise.
Evidence has suggested that aerobic exercise can be just as effective as medication in reliving and preventing symptoms of anxiety, with as little as 5 minutes of work, or a 15 minute brisk walk, which can have a positive effect that can last for hours. It has also been discovered that the more exercise one does, the better the protective effects, thus helping a person to manage the symptoms of panic and anxiety and even preventing them from having them again in the future.
Sounds great right? A brisk walk around the field, a spin class in the early morning, or even a home dance workout from YouTube. Regardless of all the benefits for anxiety and panic, there are also many other benefits, such as improved mood, weight loss, decreased risk of chronic diseases and improved sleep to name a few. However, I have identified a problem, as someone who experiences anxiety and all it’s associated physical symptoms and trust me, I’ve had every, single, one!
Exercise-induced panic attacks is a state similar to panic attacks, however they are brought on when a person is in the middle of their exercise, or immediately after. Exercising results in the same physical sensations as panic: increased heart rate, shortness of breath, increased adrenalin, sore, achy and shakey muscles, sweating, tiredness and feelings of nausea to name a few. In my experience, there are no differences between the feelings of exercise and the feelings of panic. The same as they say that the body does not know the difference between panic and excitement, thus it is reported to tell your brain that you ‘are excited about x’, in order to give it some context.
As someone who has played sport my whole life, and also has a Master’s and Degree in Nutrition, Physical Activity and Public Health, I know first had the incredible benefits of being physically active for physical, mental, emotional and social health. Therefore, during panic and feelings of anxiety, I knew that I had to take part in aerobic exercise. Which was fine, as this was something I’d done my whole life and if anything, I was incredibly frustrated being inactive and not doing the things that gave me great joy! Yet, towards the end and immediately after my aerobic exercise, I would feel really weird; almost out of control and as though I was going to faint! I’ve even questioned whether I’d had a blood pressure issue or diabetes (it’s true)! I began to wonder whether it was the exercise itself that was bringing on these same feelings that I was working hard to prevent and if that was the case, how on earth was I going to combat this?
I’ve come to realise that when a person has had anxiety and panic attacks, their body is so used to these sensations that are associated with ‘danger’ (thanks to our 2 million year old brain), that when they take part in physical activity and sport, and even knowing it is good for them and they want to do it, it is more likely than not, going to end up in panic and anxiety, oh what a cycle this is! The person will therefore have to be strong and realise that they’re not the same thing (thereby giving context to the brain again), otherwise they will associate aerobic exercise with panic and continue their avoidance behaviours and be unable to rid themselves of panic and anxiety any time soon!
It got me thinking about the other types of anxiety that could be experienced by a person. For example, the thought of leaving the house alone to go on a long walk. I can tell you now that any person with agoraphobia or panic disorder will think, and truly believe that if they go on this run alone, not only will they die along the way, but they will come back feeling worse than when they set off! Let alone the scary gyms! Imagine telling someone with anxiety that “hey, just go to the local gym, you’ll get over it“, you know, those testosterone filled places filled with staring and intimidating people – that, is anxiety causing! Therefore I believe that it can be concluded that yes, exercise IS good and can prevent anxiety and depression technically, but actually, exercise itself and even the act of having to leave the home and go to a strange place, can also create anxiety!
The only reasonable solution around this is to continue aerobic exercise and engage your pre-frontal cortex (thinking brain) to understand that the feelings and sensations are a result of the exercise you are doing, and NOT anxiety. You are not ill and you will not die, faint or throw up. How do I know this? Trust me, I have believed this to my core in my past and it’s never happened to me, ever! I am pleased to say that I have never died or fainted as a result of anxiety, despite believing that every single time ‘this is the time that it’s going to happen‘. I bet it hasn’t happened to you either! You need to reap the benefits of exercise as much as possible, such as increased happy hormones, concentration and decreased levels of stress to name a few, which will then help with protective effects against anxiety, stress and panic and thus, make you less prone in the future, until your symptoms dissipate!
My advice, start off by exercising in your own home. Start with low impact exercises where you can control the intensity and duration of the aerobic exercises. As long as your heart rate and breathing rate increases, that is a good start. Start with a YouTube video so that you can be distracted from ‘waiting to have a panic attack’, or put on really loud headphones where you can listen to your favourite music. Just 10 minutes at a time will be enough at any one time, however I advise that you do at least 30 minutes a day. For me, I’d rather do the 30 minutes in one go, rather than three sets of 10 minutes so I don’t have to ensure worrying three times a day. However, if I know I am going to be particularly sedentary one day, then breaking up the exercise throughout the day seems more beneficial. I guess everyone is different and so you have to do what works for you. Then, after each time you have taken part in exercise, reward yourself! In no time, you will start to feel and see the benefits of exercise and will begin to thoroughly enjoy it!
Have you ever experienced exercise-induced panic attacks or anxiety? Comment down below on how you’ve over come it, I’d love to hear from you!
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