Not everyone finds sitting in deep thought helpful. Here’s why even the yoga experts believe that practices like yin yoga and meditation aren’t universal anxiety soothers.
How many times have you actually been able to flow or ‘be in the moment’ when stressed? I’ve tried doing yin yoga in the midst of overwhelming panic and while the class music is gentle and the poses force you to breathe deeply, my mind is still whirling at the end of the hour. If I go out for a 45 minute run, however, I find that I’m able to work through all my troubles on the trot and return home feeling noticeably calmer – and often equipped with a solution to the problem.
We know that slower forms of movement are supposed to help calm the mind and body by tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system. If activities like daily HIIT are partly responsible for cortisol overload, then it makes sense to go for slow and stretchy movement when you’re feeling stressed. But some of us might actually find that slowing down causes us to spiral even further. Are we broken? Have we ‘failed’ at self-calming? No – it’s totally normal.
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Exercising for anxiety: how to safely develop a fitness routine with chronic anxiety
According to the Mental Health Foundation, exercise was one of the most effective ways we coped with stress during the pandemic – no surprises there. For many of us, that involved running in nature for the first time or smashing a home workout in the living room. Sure, we may have flowed but it was far easier to keep moving and chasing those all-important endorphins than sit and think.
And that’s why Vanessa Michielon, dancer, sociology PhD and founder of the Transformative Movement Method, says that there’s more to anxiety relief than restorative yoga. “When dealing with anxiety, we are often drawn to think that the only way to ease the agitated parts of our mind is to practise relaxation techniques,” she tells Stylist. “While increasing numbers of studies suggest that slow forms of yoga and conscious breathing can be an effective adjunct therapy for people experiencing anxiety disorders, these are not the only way we can use our mindful movement practice to shift into a safer mental/emotional state.”
Higher intensity exercise can help us stop brooding
For some of us, she says that a balanced and varied programme of movement that includes activities like barre, power yoga, dancing, running and weight lifting may “help us get back into touch with our bodies, give our mind some space from rumination and positively shape our relationship with life challenges”. That definitely speaks to my experiences: simply having to concentrate on completing a heavy deadlift set, for example, can be the mental break I need when overwhelmed by thoughts. Running often offers a space for problem solving; walking allows me to concentrate on the nature around me rather than what’s going on inside my own world/mind.
Michielon explains that because anxiety is linked to an overstimulated sympathetic nervous system, to rebalance, we want to embrace practices which help us:
- Move into the parasynthetic state (rest and digest)
- Develop mindfulness – or as she puts it, “learning how to be more tolerant to discomfort”.
To target stress, you want a regular mix of yin and yang activity
Slow breathing and stretching can help us to downregulate: “One of the ways that mindful movement, like specific forms of yoga and pilates, shifts us to a calmer state, is through the increase of GABA neurotransmitters in the brain, which weaken our fear response,” she explains.
But when it comes to the second point, mindful movement can be anything that allows us to focus. It “strengthens the prefrontal cortex of the brain and helps create a buffer between our stressors (what challenges us) and our response. Tuning into our body and improving proprioception increases our capacity to decode threat or safety messages, so that we can learn how to react less impulsively,” Michielon explains.
Choosing, say, an at-home barre class when you’re pranging out is going to help you to strengthen the mind-body connection – making you physically, mentally and emotionally stronger.
Dynamic movement burns excess energy
More to the point, it’s not always possible to be still and send that focus inwards when you’re struggling mentally. “In this case, a vigorous practice can be beneficial to start with, especially for those of us who experience anxiety as restlessness. Dynamic movements can help us get rid of excess energy, so we can receive some relief from hyper-arousal and settle into stillness more easily,” she explains.
“When performed within a safe range, physically challenging activities that lift our heart rate up help us associate a state of high activation with excitement and joy (the safe state of the sympathetic nervous system), rather than fear and anxiety only (the sympathetic nervous system under threat).” Of course, that can work the other way around: some people who have chronic anxiety experience exercise-induced elevated heart rates in a similar way to panic attacks.
But the point here is in developing an exercise regime that feels good to you – and mixing up what you do. If all you do is high tempo exercise, you may find your stress stays elevated. If you follow a run or strength session with a stretchy cool down or spend your rest days on mindful walks, you can benefit from using up that excess energy and tapping into the parasynthetic nervous system.
Perhaps formal exercise just isn’t for you. Michielon points to the polyvagal theory devised by Dr Steven Porges, which says that mirroring other people as part of a group (ie dancing/Zumba) can stimulate the vagus nerve – allowing us to reduce anxiety and feel grounded, joyful and safe.
Strength training and running can physically reduce symptoms of anxiety
From a biological point of view, Michielon points out that physically challenging activities can force our muscles to produce myokines – molecules that help keep our brains healthy and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. “Strength training, pilates or running can literally shape our sense of self, increasing our confidence and positively changing the perception of what we are capable of.”
“When approached within our safe window of capacity, our movement practice can help us respond to stress more effectively, training our nervous system to swing harmoniously and healthily between activated and relaxed states,” she explains, saying that the most important thing to remember is that the way we deal with stress and anxiety is totally unique to us.
“Practices that in theory ‘should’ make us feel more relaxed, could actually be triggering or not useful in a specific circumstance. For instance, changing our breath or opening our body with deep stretches too soon can actually be pretty scary if we have spent years unconsciously protecting and defending ourselves through tightening or collapsing in specific areas of the body. The more we practice, the more we learn how to use every tool in a compassionate and wise way. We know when we need to go for a run to discharge stress or when we are ready to settle in stillness and watch our thoughts.”
Have a go at one of our 15-minute mobility videos for a short stint of mindful movement, over on the Strong Women Training Club.
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