by Crystal Lauer
Health Impact News
Most of us are familiar with the sensations of fear; the heart racing, mouth drying, stomach churning, dizzying reaction, that occurs when we encounter the unexpected.
Fear, in and of itself, is a natural physiological response to real or perceived danger and one that has contributed heavily to the continuation of humanity. Knowing when to run from a physical threat and when to fight, allowed our ancestors to survive immediate dangers in their daily lives and continue to perpetuate the species.
The modern landscape we face daily has changed considerably into what we might consider a more civilized, less threatening environment. So why, despite all this advancement, do more than 40 million of us between the ages of 18 and 51 in this country suffer from an anxiety disorder?
While our ancestors combated predators and ran from unexpected natural disasters, our fears more commonly center around unfulfilled expectations, judgement by others and our self-worth.
A hyper-focus on expectations and image are fed daily by the rise of both media and social media and their increasing accessibility. Pressure to keep up with expectations, whether our own or others, has left our emotional brains overstimulated and our nervous systems exhausted.
Finding an obvious danger to either, fight or flee, is often perplexing in the midst of all the noise, leaving our brains on continual high alert. This prolonged hyper-vigilance can lead to a variety of anxiety classifications, the most common of which is Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) affects 6.8 million adults in the U.S., with women being twice as likely to suffer as men.
GAD is defined by excessive sustained anxiety concerning a variety of things and according to the Annual Review of Clinical Psychology ,
“ …is associated with substantial personal and societal cost yet is the least successfully treated of the anxiety disorders.”
Co-occurring disorders such as Major Depression Disorder (MDD), the largest cause of disabilities among the U.S. population between the ages of 15 and 44, affecting more than 16 million individuals, and the epidemic increase in substance abuse are leaving a vast number of people desperately searching for relief and ultimately some peace.
Often it’s difficult to recognize through immediate interaction or simple observation that an individual is even struggling with daily anxiety, making it an insidious disorder that is commonly not understood by people who are not affected by it.
Even those who do suffer from anxiety disorders may be unaware that their physical symptoms are related and have a shared root in the anxious brain and overstimulated nervous system.
Most people who suffer from an anxiety disorder are aware that the fear is unreasonable, but frustratingly cannot control the myriad of uncomfortable physical sensations and thoughts.
What someone else might see as compulsive and controlling may simply be attributed to an individual’s learned coping mechanism, as they attempt to fight off the relentless onslaught of hyper-vigilance and the corresponding anxiety. Compulsive behavior can afford a temporary relief from symptoms but is ultimately not the solution.
So why are we so wired and tired?
The medical community posits that anxiety is born in the amygdala, an almond-shaped pair of neurons located near the hippocampus and thought to be a part of the limbic system (though it’s membership in the limbic system is not universally agreed upon).
From its seat, deep in the center of the emotional brain, the amygdala’s responsibility is to detect emotions such as anger, fear and sadness, while controlling aggression, filing memories and preparing for emergencies. It’s also responsible for retaining memories and for conditioning responses through both events and emotions associated to fear.
By contrast, the prefrontal cortex, which is commonly known as the cognitive brain, oversees inhibiting the barrage of amplified emotions from the amygdala. The hypersensitized amygdala of an anxious brain senses too many things, benign or real, as threatening and thereby sounds the alarm for them all, and when the cognitive brain has a weakened connection to the amygdala, it fails to inhibit the overactivity of the amygdala.
Stress is the enemy of memory, as stress causes the hippocampus to shrink in size. The hippocampus is responsible in part for the formation, organization and storage of new memories, and the sensations and emotions experienced when the memory was created.
This is the reason that smells or tastes can instantly trigger strong emotions and memories.
Anxiety itself causes heightened stress in the sufferer, which in turn limits memory retention, with the exception of memories that support the anxiety. This means that while failure, threats and danger are immediately accessible to the brain, memories involving success and safety get filed away out of reach in the brains of those who suffer with anxiety.
Both genetics and environment have been shown to influence the balance of the brain, with early childhood traumas and adverse experiences convincing the brain to rewire in favor of hyper-vigilance while increasing its perception of danger. At the same time, research has shown that anxiety disorders often run in a family with certain personality types being at higher risk .
When the amygdala senses a threat, it immediately sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which acts as the communication coordinator with the rest of the body by influencing the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls functions of the body that are involuntary, such as breathing, heartbeat, blood pressure and dilation and constriction of certain blood vessels and the bronchioles, which are the small airways in the lungs.
The autonomic nervous system is made up of two sections, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight-or-flight response to a perceived threat, allowing for a burst of energy and acting much like the gas pedal of a car, while the parasympathetic nervous system puts the brakes on the sympathetic nervous system and acts as the “rest and digest” response that calms the body after the perceived threat has been resolved.
With the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the endocrine glands are engaged and the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) is released by the adrenal glands and pumped into the bloodstream, inducing a variety of physiological reactions.
With the circulation of adrenaline, the heart rate is raised to better distribute blood to vital organs, the heart and the muscles. Breathing becomes more rapid and shallow to quickly move oxygen through the body to the brain and widened small airways in the lungs. All the senses are heightened, including sight and hearing, and glucose and fat are mobilized from temporary storage to supply needed energy to the body.
All of this happens so quickly that the brain’s visual center doesn’t have an opportunity to completely process the situation before the amygdala and hypothalamus instigate the cascade. It is the reason you can react quickly in an emergency without even thinking about it.
If the brain continues to perceive that the threat has not passed, a series of chemical and hormone-involved reactions will occur, which results in cortisol being released in order to keep the body on high alert. Once the threat has been perceived as neutralized, cortisol levels will decline, and the parasympathetic nervous system will put the brakes on the stress response.
Those who suffer from anxiety often find that they live within the sympathetic nervous system rather than a healthy balance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
This, unfortunately, leads to a host of symptoms and health issues that occur when the body is prevented from “resting and digesting” appropriately.
Not surprisingly many suffers of anxiety complain of digestive issues, headaches, poor sleeping patterns, muscle aches, increased inflammation, mental fog, lack of focus, etc. all influenced by having their foot involuntarily on the “gas pedal” of their autonomic nervous system.
So, what’s an anxious body to do when so much feels out of control?
Many of us who suffer from one form of anxiety or another have learned to box breathe  (also known as four-square breathing: 4 seconds breathing in, 4 seconds hold, 4 seconds breathe out, 4 seconds hold, and so on), meditate, practice gratitude, attempt to relax, stay away from triggers, reduce our daily decisions by implementing routines and essentially hack our anxiety to the best of our ability and knowledge.
We’ve changed our diets to regulate our blood sugar  and even reduced alcohol and caffeine. We are aware that facing fears and accepting them often decreases the anxiety and the chances of a full blown panic attack, but we still struggle to do so each time the negative thoughts get lodged beneath the brake pedal in our brain.
It can all be so emotionally and physically exhausting.
So, how many of us have taken up running and resistance training to quell our anxiety?
Sure, we’ve been told by our mothers that running away from our problems never solved them, but is it possible that in this situation the parental advice may not be completely accurate?
Emerging research seems to indicate that
“…even single bouts of resistance exercise may produce moderate improvements in anxiety,” according to Justin Strickland, M.S., a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky.
In his journal article , he points out evidence suggesting resistance training performed regularly for six weeks or more shows significant reductions in anxiety, which holds true across a range of ages and coexisting health issues within the study population.
A study done across 8 weeks and involving 42 participants  contrasted state anxiety responses, with the results showing a reduction in anxiety symptoms after 50 minutes of either aerobic or resistance training. Participants performed at 70-80% of their own max effort for the duration of this study.
Fascinating new research  shows that reducing exercise was found to inhibit the body’s ability to produce new nerve cells, and using the legs, specifically in weight-bearing exercises, relayed signals which induced the creation of neural cells.
These cells are vital components that allow for a healthy brain and nervous system and assure we can adapt properly to stress in our lives.
In the 28-day study, which involved prohibiting mice from the use of their hind legs only and allowing them to continue to eat and groom themselves naturally, the mice, who showed no evidence of stress, were found to have decreased the neural stem cells by 70% in comparison with the control group.
This study has implications across a broad spectrum of neurological diseases and disorders.
Another element of resistance training for anxiety sufferers is the combination of repetitive movements, combined with the predictability of the routine and the physical and mental distraction from sensations.
For many who suffer from anxiety, uncertainty is a fuel for their disorder, while predictability has soothing effects similar to meditation.
Resistance training, with its formulaic movements, can quiet the chatter in the anxious brain as the body moves through familiar repetitions and physically-engaging routines.
As lifting heavy weights becomes a consistent part of an anxious person’s weekly schedule, excess adrenaline is used more efficiently and the cognitive brain gains confidence with each new level of fitness reached. Building up physical strength changes self-perception, which also helps to strengthen an individual mentally and emotionally.
Because many anxiety-suffers are prone to higher levels of anxiety sensitivity, producing panic attacks and panic disorders, exposure therapies are often used to reduce the reactivity of the anxious brain to the physiological sensations.
Research has confirmed the benefit of both low and high intensity aerobic exercise  in reducing anxiety sensitivity, with high intensity exercise working more rapidly. However, only high intensity aerobic exercise reduced the fear of physical sensations related to the anxiety.
While working out can desensitize anxiety suffers to the physical symptoms of anxiety and panic, it also raises levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor  (BDNF), a protein that helps repair brain cells that are damaged by stress and depression.
A growing body of evidence points to exercise, both aerobic and anaerobic, being beneficial for anxiety disorders and depression. It also makes a correlation between exercise performed in the morning, when cortisol levels are naturally high, and how you will sleep at night.
When you exercise in the morning, you activate light sensitive tissue in your eye which encourages the brain to produce the hormone melatonin earlier in the evening.
As sleep is imperative, and sometimes elusive, for those who suffer from anxiety and depression, exercise in the morning hours  may just help.
An added benefit to all this running and lifting comes in the form of exercise-induced endorphins, the body’s natural opioids, which have, until recently, been given all the credit for the infamous “runner’s high,” but an emerging field of research is centering on the endocannabinoid system.
Endocannabinoids are composed of molecules called lipids that can easily cross the blood brain barrier and bind themselves to the nervous system, reducing pain and anxiety. Researchers suspect that these cannabinoids , which can be found in the blood after high intensity exercise, may be the actual party responsible for our post-exercise euphoria and the creation of new brain cells.
With the body of evidence ever increasing in favor of aerobic exercise and resistance training, making them valuable additions to a comprehensive approach for dealing with anxiety disorders and stress in general, it may be worth the cost of a new pair of running shoes and some time with a barbell to find out if its right for you.
And while your mother may have been correct that you cannot outrun your problems, perhaps in some circumstances, running could solve some of your problems.
Adrienne Stinson. “What Is Box Breathing?” Medical News Today, June 2018. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321805.php.
Broman-Fulks JJ, Berman ME, Rabian BA, and Webster MJ. “Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Anxiety Sensitivity.” Behav Res Ther. 42, no. 2 (2004): 125–36. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7967(03)00103-7.
Charlotte Price Persson. “Exercise in the Morning and Sleep Better at Night.” ScienceNordic, September 5, 2016. http://sciencenordic.com/exercise-morning-and-sleep-better-night.
Gretchen Reynolds. “Phys Ed: What Really Causes Runner’s High?” New York Times, 2011. https://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/16/phys-ed-what-really-causes-runners-high/.
Hale BS, and Raglin JS. “State Anxiety Responses to Acute Resistance Training and Step Aerobic Exercise across Eight Weeks of Training.” J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 42, no. 1 (2002): 108–12.
Marwa Azab Ph.D. “Are You a Highly Sensitive Person? Should You Change? A Sensitive Person’s Brain Is Different: Research Points to Some Advantages.” Psychology Today, July 27, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuroscience-in-everyday-life/201707/are-you-highly-sensitive-person-should-you-change.
Michelle G. Newman, Sandra J. Llera, Thane M. Erickson, Amy Przeworski, and Louis G. Castonguay. “Worry and Generalized Anxiety Disorder: A Review and Theoretical Synthesis of Evidence on Nature, Etiology, Mechanisms, and Treatment.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology 9 (2013): 275–97. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-050212-185544.
Monique Aucoin, and Sukriti Bhardwaj. “Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Hypoglycemia Symptoms Improved with Diet Modification,” 2016. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/7165425.
Raffaella Adami, Jessica Pagano, Michela Colombo, Natalia Platonova, Deborah Recchia, Raffaella Chiaramonte, Roberto Bottinelli, Monica Canepari, and Daniele Bottai. “Reduction of Movement in Neurological Diseases: Effects on Neural Stem Cells Characteristics.” Front. Neurosci, 2018. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00336.
Sleiman, Sama F, Jeffrey Henry, Rami Al-Haddad, Lauretta El Hayek, Edwina Abou Haidar, Thomas Stringer, Devyani Ulja, et al. “Exercise Promotes the Expression of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) through the Action of the Ketone Body β-Hydroxybutyrate.” ELife. 5, no. e15092 (2016). https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.15092.
Strickland, Justin C., and Mark A. Smith. “The Anxiolytic Effects of Resistance Exercise.” Front Psychol. 5 (2014): 753. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00753.