How to beat Anxiety and Fear with Exercise

The Theory

If you think about what happens when you become anxious, it is very similar to your response to hard exercise: your heart rate increases and you get out of breath. That’s stress. Because of this, exercise can become a safe place to have a high heart rate and fast breathing. You can learn that a high heart rate and fast breathing does not mean that you are having an anxiety attack. Over time you become more comfortable with arousal and your brain gets reprogrammed to deal with stressful situations without feeling anxious.

The science of it is that exercise increases levels of something called FFA in the bloodstream. As a result, this lowers the ratio of tryptophan in the bloodstream. To bring the ratio back to normal, the body increases production of tryptophan, which in turn builds serotonin, which is the chemical that makes us feel good.

Fear is the memory of anxiety

Fear is the feeling we get when we are presented with a situation that we have faced before and which made us feel anxious: it is the memory of some past anxiety. There is some truth in the saying that ignorance is bliss. Panic is the state we get into when we are paralysed by our anxiety.

Drown out the fear

You can’t erase fear completely, the synaptic pathways in your brain cannot be erased. However, you can ‘drown out’ the fear by creating new positive synaptic pathways that strengthen and become the brain’s first response to the stressful situation. Simply doing something in response to your anxiety, rather than being passive, is beneficial. This is called ‘Active Coping’.

There are a number of ways that exercise tackles anxiety:

  1. It is a distraction, literally, from the stress.
  2. It reduces muscle tension, just like beta-blockers, but unlike beta-blockers, you are totally self-reliant, which will also build your self-confidence.
  3. It builds brain resources (chemicals like serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA and BDNF), making your brain tougher.
  4. It teaches you a different outcome of a stressful situation: your heart rate is up, you’re expecting to panic – but all is good! It reroutes your negative circuits to positive ones.
  5. It improves your resilience to stressful situations. You are in control, not the anxiety.
  6. It is active, not passive, so sets you free. Locked down people get anxious and depressed.

The Workout

  • Rigorous exercise is the best way of hurting anxiety: 60-90% of your maximum heart rate.
  • It’s not just for those with anxiety disorders, exercise will help with everyday anxieties that we all face.
  • Try 3 x 90 minute workouts per week.


Information from this article is taken from Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman.

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