Move Your Body to Release Anxiety, Reduce Anxiety Symptoms
It can be difficult to release anxiety and reduce anxiety symptoms because anxiety is a total-body experience. It has a way of working its way deep into our body and slinking around our mind. Anxiety can be a painful experience, with a host of physical symptoms, negative thoughts, and unsettling emotions. It can make us feel both tired and wired, drained and agitated at the same time, as though we might jump right out of our own skin but collapse with exhaustion while we’re doing it. I’ve discovered that a key part of managing anxiety and replacing it with a pervasive sense of calm contentment is to exercise in a variety of ways. Keep reading to learn about moving your body to release anxiety and reduce anxiety symptoms.
Why Moving Your Body (Exercise) Releases Anxiety and Reduces Anxiety Symptoms
When we think of anxiety, we often think instantly of the negative thoughts, worries, what-ifs, and worst-case scenarios that can be haunting. While worry and fear are the essence of anxiety, anxiety is much more than our thoughts and emotions. In response to our thoughts, a pinball machine-like reaction occurs throughout our brain and body. Something, whether it’s a thought about the past or future or something we notice with our senses that reminds us of a worry or fear, activates our sympathetic nervous system (the fight-or-flight reaction) to prepare us to fight the trigger or run from it1.
This stress reaction sets our heart racing and blood pressure soaring. It diverts blood flow away from our gut and into the muscles of our limbs. The immune system causes body-wide inflammation to occur in preparation for healing from wounds we might possibly occur while fighting or running. As a result, we often experience many unpleasant physical symptoms of anxiety such as muscle tension, joint pain, tightness in the chest or muscles, abdominal discomfort, headaches, or other unpleasant sensations.
Exercise has been found to help anxiety2. Personally, I’ve found that moving my body with different types of exercises releases anxiety from my whole being. Exercise, for me, can be centering and calming. It can ease my aches and pains that result from my fight-or-flight reaction. It can also energize me in positive ways, giving me natural energy that replaces anxiety fatigue.
Relaxing Movements and Exercises to Help Anxiety
I often find that anxiety makes me feel agitated. I’m often full of energy, but my anxious energy can be unfocused. Also, when my anxiety flares, I tend to experience muscle aches and stiffness as well as joint pain. Engaging in purposeful grounding and centering movements can be incredibly anxiety-relieving. My favorites:
- Yoga–I start every day by doing yoga to relieve my anxiety. Starting my day with yoga’s deep breathing and poses makes my body and mind feel healthy and focused. I used to do yoga only occasionally when my muscle or joint pain was at its worse. Because it was so helpful for me, I began to do it with increasing frequency until it became a daily routine. Yoga itself can be beneficial in times when we’re anxious, but it’s the regular, routine practice that keeps anxiety at bay.
- Mindfulness walks–When I notice symptoms of anxiety invading my day, I pause and take a mindful walk. A mindful walk can be done inside or outdoors and involves walking at a pace that feels right for you in that moment and using your senses to notice your experience in the moment. I tune in to my body from head to toe and notice how the movement feels. I can actually feel the tension leave my body as I walk in a mindful way like this.
- Gratitude strolls–The symptoms of anxiety often scream for our attention. When we pay attention to them, it’s easy to get caught up in everything that feels wrong in our bodies as well as become stuck in the worries and negative thoughts bouncing around in our mind. To switch my focus and feel better, I take gratitude strolls. These are very similar to mindful walks, but during this movement activity, I look for things that make me feel grateful. My attention shifts from what is wrong to what is right, and I notice anxiety leave my body and mind.
These relaxing movements are incredibly helpful when I’m agitated with anxiety. They also help me when I’m calm to stay that way. Sometimes, though, anxiety makes me heavy and tired. Instead of using relaxing movement, I turn to more energizing exercise.
Energizing Exercises to Release Anxiety
Moderate- to vigorous exercise can significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety. I also find energizing exercise to be motivating, helping me have the confidence and energy to keep going when anxiety tries to tell me to give up.
The best exercise is the type that you will do because you enjoy it. It’s a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning any exercise program to avoid injury or exacerbating illness. When it comes to exercise for anxiety, what you do isn’t as important as simply doing some type of exercise that gets you moving to chase away anxiety.
My personal favorites include:
- Hiking–I live in a mountainous area, and the hills work my body enough to release anxious tension. Being outside, appreciating the beauty of nature, and breathing deeply to inhale fresh, crisp air also reduces my anxiety symptoms.
- Fast-paced outdoor walks–I’m a terrible runner and seriously couldn’t run to save my life if that were ever necessary, but I can elevate my heart rate and move anxiety out of my body with fast-paced walks around my neighborhood.
- A video game workout–I am not much of a gamer (I am actually incredibly terrible at every video game I’ve tried to play), but I recently asked for (and received) a video game system. I turned 50 in early January, and my husband and I have just become empty-nesters. I thought that something new and fun would be great for our mental health and wellbeing, and so far I’m right. One of the games I have is a fitness game. I’m new to it, but so far it has proven to be an enjoyable workout that also happens to release anxiety.
Finding and engaging in a variety of movements just might release your own anxiety and reduce your symptoms. In the comments, share what movements you like to do to help anxiety.
- Coltrera, F. and Corliss, J., Stress Management: Harvard Medical School Special Health Report. Harvard Health Publishing, 2020.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), « Exercise for Stress and Anxiety. » Accessed January 6, 2021.
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Tanya J. Peterson delivers online and in-person mental health education for students in elementary and middle school. She is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She also speaks nationally about mental health. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.