Anxiety is the most commonly occurring trigger for substance abuse. That’s not surprising, in light of the fact that anxiety disorders, which affect some 40 million Americans, are also the most common psychiatric illness in this country, with a lifetime rate that’s reportedly roughly 30 percent. And because anxiety and substance use disorders frequently co-occur, so much of my work with clients in recovery is about the business of encouraging healthy habits that manage and reduce stress and anxiety.
Exercise is one such coping mechanism. Some studies have even found it to be as effective as medication for anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. A 2013 article in The New York Times explained the neuroscience behind how exercise can calm anxiety, based on recent research at Princeton University.
But when it comes to taming anxiety, not all forms of fitness are created equal. High-intensity exercise tends to be more therapeutic, a study at the University of Missouri found. On that note, here are five of the best workouts for relieving anxiety:
Much has been learned about how running can help with anxiety disorders. Just 20 to 30 minutes of jogging releases endorphins that cause relaxation and burn away excess levels of the stress hormone cortisol. (Cortisol is a frequent contributor to anxiety symptoms.) Running also raises your body’s core temperature, which modulates anxiety levels by reducing blood pressure and Improving sleep patterns, among other things.
Running’s release of pent-up energy also serves as a natural buffer against anxiety. A sedentary lifestyle is more apt to convert unused energy into anxiety, whereas regular runs—even short, rapid-fire sprints—help channel and divert that energy toward healthier ends.
Like running, bicycling is associated with better overall well-being, including a calmer mindset. In a study reported by the magazine, Bicycling, test subjects with depression (frequently anxiety’s conjoined twin) were asked to cycle on a stationary bike and then follow their workout with a meditation exercise. At the end of just eight weeks, the test subjects’ depression had dropped to non-clinical levels.
One reason cycling reduces anxiety may have to do with the feel-good endorphins it releases. Dopamine and serotonin levels spike when you’re spinning your wheels at a fast clip. So do naturally occurring cannabinoids in the same family of chemicals that produce marijuana’s signature high. When researchers asked 24 men to pedal or run for 50 minutes at a moderate pace, they reportedly found high levels of the cannabinoid anandamide. Anandamide has been alternately called “the bliss molecule” and “the brain’s own marijuana.” (And it may go without saying that as a general rule, more bliss tends to preclude anxiety.)
Before dispensing with the notion as nothing other than sheer boredom, consider this explanation from swimmer Jim Thornton, in an issue of Swimmer magazine. After noting how swimming (like running and cycling) can produce endorphins and regenerate brain cells, Thornton wrote:
Besides possible biochemical changes in the brain, swimming requires the alternating stretch and relaxation of skeletal muscles while simultaneously deep-breathing in a rhythmic pattern. If this sounds familiar, it’s because these are key elements of many practices, from hatha yoga to progressive muscle relaxation, used to evoke the relaxation response.
Swimming laps may lend itself more to meditative repetition than even running or cycling. That may be why, in the same article, psychotherapist and swimmer Moby Coquillard compared swimming to the mindfulness exercises he teaches clients. When they are focused on stroke and kick mechanics and the rhythmic pattern of rotating hips, underwater pulls and breathing to the side, many swimmers experience a break from anxious rumination.
Dance is an effective treatment for anxiety—so much so that it has gained official recognition as a form of therapy. Dance movement therapy is “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual," according to the American Dance Therapy Association. And in my own experience in this field, I’ve witnessed firsthand the healing power of dance for those who suffer from anxiety.
Research confirms my more anecdotal experience. When clients diagnosed with anxiety disorders were assigned to one of four settings, a modern dance class, an exercise class, a music class or a math class, “only the dance class significantly reduced anxiety,” according to an article in Psychology Today.
The takeaway? If you’re prone to anxiety, it may be time to sign up for a dance fitness class.
Hiking in Nature
Recent research at Stanford University has revealed that walking in nature (as opposed to in an urban area) reduces activity in a region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is often associated with anxious rumination in people with depression. A previous study found that simply spending time in nature dampens anxiety.
A friend who backpacks regularly described how it calms his anxieties. Just one or two days of walking in the woods filters out the worries and concerns of daily life. When he’s hiking up a mountain, his only care is what’s immediately right in front of him: how to scale the log in his path or where to pitch his tent for the night. All of the other stressors of daily life—deadlines, relationship problems, parenting concerns—seem far-removed in comparison.
So, the next time you feel a panic attack coming on, lace up those hiking boots and take a long walk in nature.
Candice Rasa, LCSW, is Clinical Director of Beach House Center for Recovery, a drug and alcohol addiction rehabilitation center in Juno Beach, FL. She has more than 10 years’ experience in the mental health and substance-abuse arena, and supports healing in the clients she serves from a solution-focused, strengths-based approach.