Exercising with Anxiety and Depression
Susan Hoff
May 27, 2021

Exercise is supposed to reduce anxiety. But what happens when it doesn't?

When you start exercising, your body will release the stress hormone, cortisol. You may be surprised and think, "Exercise doesn't sound like something that causes stress, but rather something that reduces it. What's going on?" Physical movement still puts physical pressure on the body. That's why you sweat during exercise—in order to calm and cool your body back down. When your body is functioning smoothly, the excess release of cortisol is not a problem because it will know how to stabilize this increase in stress.

However, too much cortisol coursing through your body can be harmful—especially if you already have chronically high stress-levels. If you are prone to panic attacks, for example, the extra cortisol present in exercise may prompt your body to think it is about to have another panic attack. You undergo similar physical sensations when working out and when freaking out. Therefore, If you are struggling to balance your emotional/mental well-being, it is important to learn to separate the stress of physical exercise and emotional upheaval so that you can once again enjoy the benefits of working out.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when exercising with anxiety and depression.

1. Keep it Short

Long bouts of exercise can flood your body with too much cortisol. Instead of feeling the endorphin rush that everyone raves about, you begin to feel the onset of a panic attack during exercise. Or, you feel far more fatigued and physically depleted at the end of your training session than normal. Feeling tired after a good workout is good. Feeling exhausted and in need of a few-hour nap is not normal and not good.

Research shows that endurance athletes tend to carry more cortisol in their bodies on a long-term basis. This might be okay for an athlete with temperate emotional health as her body knows how to hold and handle such pressure. But, for someone who already holds a high level of cortisol from her existing battles of anxiety and depression, an extra daily douse of the stress hormone can exacerbate her symptoms. Save the long stretches of exercise for when you are feeling more like yourself.

Stick to 10-30 minutes of exercise—tops. You want to gently tell your body that you are okay. You are not panicking. You are caring for it through physical movement. You have to reset your body's internal triggers for stress. A short workout won't release nearly as much cortisol. Instead, it can help reduce overall stress levels after your workout and throughout the day. Once your body learns it is safe in these short bouts of exercise and you feel the positive effects of exercise once again, you can begin to add in the longer workouts.

2. Exercise with Friends

Having a friend or loved one working out next to you takes your mind off the harmful or triggering thoughts that might arise during exercise. Chatting as you jog next to someone else will separate you from these thoughts or past triggers and give your body a new, positive connection to exercise.

3. Take off the Trackers

How many calories did you burn? That's not enough, keep going.

Have you ever thought this way? It can be damaging. A challenge or a goal can spur you towards success, but an unhealthily-tracked goal can spiral you into obsessive compulsive behaviors that enslave you to the number on the screen. If you feel prone to these thoughts, remove your watch for the next couple of weeks. Get the numbers off of your wrist and out of your head and take pride in the fact that you are fitting in a workout.

This might mean you have to step away from your usual treadmill Tuesdays. You can't kick a habit by keeping all the surrounding fodder. Separate yourself from it and try something new for a change. Something that maybe takes your mind away from exercise so that you can remember that exercise if meant for your mental and emotional health, just as much as it is for your physical health. Here is an article on enjoyable hobbies that include movement without it feeling like exercise.

4. Breathe

This is a given... and yet it is worth including. Especially when dealing with anxiety and depression, people end up holding their breath or taking shallow breaths all throughout the day. When they begin to exercise, their brain, which was barely getting enough oxygen through these shallow breaths as is, now starts to freak out and beg for a break. Take account of your breathing patterns during the day. And, as you enter the exercise ring, focus on your breathing as you move.

Oath & Grind By Susan Hoff
Run fast, spin hard, lift heavy, work out like crazy. Whatever you do, Oath & Grind is the destination for all things fitness, nutrition, and life.
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