Running For Anxiety: How Running Helps Overcome Anxiety

Running for anxiety

The story of Jessica Skarzynski is nothing less than inspirational. She literally outran her anxiety disorder which cropped up after her mother was diagnosed with cancer just by running. She herself claims that running made all the difference. Is that a fluke, you might be wondering. No, it’s not. There have been myriad researches on the effect of running on alleviating depression, and they all claim running has therapeutic value for patients of anxiety and depression.

In a study conducted on psychiatric patients to understand the effect of running on depression and anxiety, the subjects were divided into two groups—a running group that was made to run three times a week and a corrective therapy group that had to do non-cardiovascular exercises. At the end of the study, it was found that the running group had a significant reduction in depression and anxiety compared with the corrective therapy group.1 Here’s how running helps cure depression.

But while anxiety is often a symptom of depression, all people with anxiety disorders do not suffer from depression. The causes of anxiety can be as varied as genetics,2 chronic stress, sudden trauma, medical conditions like low blood sugar or heart attack, phobias, and even a lack of oxygen. Like depression, it is a function of stress, but the mechanism is somewhat different.

State Anxiety And Trait Anxiety

If you give in to anxiety when faced with a specific challenging or threatening situation that you think you cannot surmount, you suffer from state anxiety. But if this feeling recurs across many situations in your life, so much so that it has almost become a personality trait, you are suffering from trait anxiety disorder. In this case, you would have many more episodes of state anxiety or what is commonly known as a panic attack.


What Happens When You Have Anxiety?

A person with anxiety disorder would typically have a crippling feeling of fear, panic, and uneasiness, which is caused by a hike in the cortisol levels. As a result, because of the body’s fight-or-flight response, their heart starts palpitating and they have difficulty breathing, which causes light-headedness or dizziness. As the flow of blood to the hands and feet goes down, they become numb or start tingling. The high cortisol level induces a state of restlessness and eventually disturbs sleep, setting off a vicious cycle.

Does Running Really Combat Anxiety?

Running can help in a number of ways in addressing both state and trait anxiety. One of the first things a person undergoing a panic attack is advised to do is breathe deeply. Shallow breaths only compound the problem. Regular running has a positive effect on your breathing pattern. As an aerobic activity, it increases your aerobic capacity, that is your ability to take in more oxygen and use it efficiently. Alongside that it normalizes the heart rate and the blood flow. Once blood circulation improves, the symptoms of numbness or tingling also subside. The endorphins and the stress-alleviating hormones running triggers also do their part in checking the bad effects of cortisol. Here are various ways running helps alleviate anxiety:


It Relieves Anxiety Caused By Phobia

Got a fear of elevators, open spaces, or even lavatory cisterns? Run. It will inhibit your anxiety reaction.

Running has, in fact, been used in a number of studies to treat phobia, which produces a similar physiological reaction as state anxiety. It is derived from David Longo and Walter Vom Saal’s respiratory relief technique for treating phobias, in which breathing deeply and slowly after a period of restricted breathing reduces anxiety by increasing the carbon dioxide concentration in the blood and the fluid in the brain and the spine, which has a tranquilizing effect.3


In one study, patients with phobia of open spaces (agoraphobia) were made to run till they were almost out of breath and then made to walk or run through an area where their anxiety was naturally aroused. The experiment helped diminish their anxiety.4

In another study, patients with a phobia of high-level lavatory cisterns were treated in the same way and were made to enter a situation they usually feared after running vigorously till the limit of their toleration. Their phobia was cured in just five sessions.5


In yet another case study by Bart Muller and Hubert Armstrong Jr, a person with an elevator phobia was made to jog such that it left her fatigued and out of breath, with her heart rate increased and her legs weak, all of which were symptoms she associated with her phobia. She was then made to ride an elevator. The process was repeated for taller buildings until she got rid of her phobia fully.6 Though this particular case involves jogging, the effect would have been similar, and probably more rapid, had running been used as part of therapy.

The reason behind running being effective in combating anxiety in these cases is that the excitation produced by running, or any kind of vigorous physical exercise for that matter, competes with and inhibits anxiety reaction. And over time, patients identify any of these symptoms as a response to the exercise and not to the object of their phobia. Probably, it also distracts the patient from the anxiety-producing stimuli.


Happy Hormones Get Released

Running triggers the release of more endorphins and monomine neurotransmitters to keep your mood lifted.

Running increases the blood circulation to the brain and influences the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that regulates physiological processes in your body, such as reactions to stress and regulation of mood and emotions. Aerobic exercises such as running, even jogging, dancing, and swimming, trigger the release of endorphins, popularly referred to as happy hormones, and monoamines, the neurotransmitters that play a crucial role in arousal, emotion, and cognition, and thus improve mood and combat anxiety and depression.7  Exercise also reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol.8


Inhibits Excitation Under Stress

Regular running increases the GABA neurotransmitters that produce a calming effect and keep stress from triggering an immediate anxiety attack.

In an animal study conducted to explain the anxiety-reducing effect of exercise, the researchers gave a group of mice unlimited access to a running wheel and no wheel to the control group. After six weeks, both groups were exposed to cold water for a short duration, which was to act as a stressor. It turned out that the group of mice that exercised on the wheel had very different reaction than the sedentary control group.

While the control group was spurred into an excited state immediately because of an increase in certain short-lived genes that turn on when a neuron fires or sends an action potential, the exercise group showed an increase in the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA, which tones down nerve excitement, and in the number of proteins that helps in the transportation of GABA into the body. And when the researchers blocked the GABA receptors in the hippocampus of the brain in these mice, the anxiety-reducing effect of exercise was lost.9

This is an important indicator that regular exercise has calming effect on the nerves and can better withstand stressors. It can also alleviate the restlessness associated with anxiety disorders.

Makes The Brain Stress Resistant

Running can make the brain adapt to changing environment such that it can resist stress.

An animal study on the benefit of exercise on mental health showed that wheel running had an effect on the mice brain. When the mice were subjected to uncontrollable stress in the form of tail shocks, which usually induces depression- or anxiety-like behavior, mice that had six weeks of running could resist the shock better.

This is because running promoted neuroplasticity in the mice’s striatum, a part of the brain that is concerned with regulating voluntary movements, learning, habits, and cognition—that is, exercise allowed the neurons in the striatum to adapt their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment caused by injury or disease. This study showed that running enhances stress resistance and can protect against its harmful effects.

It Improves Sleep Quality

Anxiety disrupts sleep; disrupted sleep worsens anxiety. Break this vicious cycle by running for around 30 minutes a day to get a good night’s sleep.

You sleep badly when you have anxiety, and when you don’t sleep well, you are all the more stressed out and anxious. Running helps you sleep better. It lowers stress and normalizes the sleep-wake cycle by increasing sleep-inducing hormones like serotonin, growth hormone–releasing hormone (GHRH), and thyroid hormones. The drop in your body temperature after a run is also responsible for bringing good restful sleep.

Who Should Run To Relieve Anxiety?

Anyone can run. The effect of running on anxiety is independent of age or health, as shown by an analysis of three different studies.10 It’s especially helpful for patients of anxiety and depression who can’t receive traditional therapies, as proved by an analysis of dozens of other population-based studies, clinical studies, and analytic reviews of several studies related to exercise and mental health.11