Exercise – Impact on Social Anxiety
Ever heard the saying ‘healthy body, healthy mind’? When it comes to anxiety treatment this saying has never been truer. Studies have shown that regular exercise can brighten your mood, reduce anxious thoughts and decrease the physical symptoms.
HOW DOES EXERCISE REDUCE SOCIAL ANXIETY?
Exercise has been studied as a possible treatment option for anxiety symptoms, both as an extra treatment coupled with medication or psychotherapy, and as a stand-alone treatment. In addition to general health benefits, exercise has also been reported to help poor concentration, fatigue, feelings of depression, muscle tension & pain, irritability, and other general symptoms and feelings of anxiety .
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, researchers have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise (also known as cardio exercise) has been shown to decrease tension, increase mood, improve sleep, and improve self-esteem. Even five minutes of cardio exercise can stimulate these anti-anxiety effects!
This type of exercise usually involves:
People with social anxiety are unfortunately unconsciously biased to attend to certain things that evoke anxiety – they are not even aware of this. One study found that exercise and relaxation activities like yoga can impact on how people perceive or interpret certain situations, viewing their environment in a less threatening way – definitely a good thing .
Yoga – this involves stretching, movement, breathing, relaxation and meditation to exercise your body and mind.
Pilates – a system of exercises using special apparatus, designed to improve physical strength, flexibility, and posture, and enhance mental awareness.
Progressive muscle relaxation – this takes you through your body and encourages you to relax one muscle group a time (Listen to free exercises online: http://www.beaumont.ie/index.jsp?p=528&n=532)
Mindfulness – (Listen to free exercises online: http://www.beaumont.ie/index.jsp?p=528&n=532)
Improves Your Mood – the increased blood flow to your brain causes mood enhancing endorphins or ‘feel good’ hormones to be released. One study showed a reduction in anxiety symptoms following exercise plus participation in a Cognitive Behavioural Group Therapy. They also found a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. People with social anxiety benefited from a combination of exercise and group CBT .
Numerous studies have shown that exercise improves one’s self-esteem, and a sense of wellbeing . Regular physical activity can result in fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms. This supports the view that exercise offers a protective effect against the development of mental illness .
Anxiety Sensitivity and Exposure – Anxiety sensitivity is a term used when a person misinterprets or catastrophizes anxiety related sensations based on the belief that they will result in disastrous physical, psychological, and/or social outcomes. So the increased heart rate associated with anxiety may be misunderstood as a ‘heart attack’ which can be enormously frightening. A number of research studies have pointed to the effectiveness of short-term cardio exercise to reduce anxiety sensitivity . An anxious person is said to have ‘high anxiety sensitivity.’ Exposing someone with high anxiety sensitivity to the physiological symptoms they fear, such as rapid heartbeat, sweating or breathlessness, in the context of physical exercise, increases their tolerance for such symptoms . This can help show the person that the physical sensations of anxiety, which they fear, are uncomfortable but are not a serious threat to them. Repeated exposures through regular exercise might lead to less psychological or behavioural responses to the feared sensations .
The Role of Self-Efficacy – In Social Cognitive Theory (Bandurra, 1997), a person’s sense of self-efficacy regarding their ability to apply control over potential threats has an important relationship to anxiety arousal. Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their own ability to succeed in specific situations.
People with high self-efficacy are not as troubled by thoughts of worry and experience less anxiety. It has been argued that successfully coping with the stress of exercise leads to increased levels of self-efficacy . As fitness improves, the person experiences greater strength, less pain, more stamina, etc. In a study looking at how exercise intensity and self-efficacy effects can reduce anxiety, researchers found that self-efficacy (or having confidence in your own ability) decreased anxiety during moderate exercise. This study suggests that moderate levels of exercise leads to better self-efficacy and therefore reduced anxiety .
Distraction – Distraction or “time out” has been proposed as another reason why exercise is effective at reducing anxiety. One study found that distraction techniques such as meditation, and quiet rest were as effective as a single session of exercise in reducing anxiety . The benefits of exercise may result from it being a distraction from stressors and a “time out” from daily activities.
Updated May 2015 – Lucy Burke
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