Findings: Exercise can lower anxiety sensitivity and increase self-efficacy

A report published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry explores the effect exercise has on reducing anxiety sensitivity and on increasing self-efficacy.

Generally, anxiety is a normal reaction to life’s stresses. Think, for instance, of interpersonal interactions with colleagues, sitting for an all-important exam, or buying a home. These are life events in which we experience a colorful host of emotions, one of them very well being anxiety at possible outcomes. We experience anxiousness due to a particular event, and once we have lived through it the feeling subsides in a timely fashion.

For some, however, anxiety is an unwelcome companion that interferes with one’s activities of daily living, making it difficult for the individual to make it through the workday, cultivate or maintain relationships, and even enjoy social outings. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, affecting 40 million adults aged 18 or older, that’s 18% of the population. They are characterized by persistent feelings of tension and worriedness that do not go away, and may actually grow worse, over time. Those suffering from anxiety disorders may find themselves trapped in fear-producing recurring intrusive thoughts (unpleasant, upsetting images or thoughts that, while an indication of an anxiety disorder, may also exacerbate the disorder).

A report published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry explores the effect exercise has on reducing anxiety sensitivity and on increasing self-efficacy.

The benefits of regular physical activity are well-documented. It has been proven to lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, and some cancers. It can also improve your mental health and mood.

aerobics self magazine
image from Self Magazine

The report cites an inverse relationship between exercise frequency and anxiety sensitivity, meaning that as exercise frequency goes up, anxiety sensitivity goes down.

Anxiety sensitivity refers to the tendency to misinterpret anxiety-related sensations (like rapid heartbeat, increased and rapid breathing, sweating) as an inevitable indication of disastrous physical, psychological, and/or social outcomes.

The inverse relationship between exercise frequency and anxiety sensitivity suggests that exposing an individual with high anxiety sensitivity – via exercise – to the physical symptoms they fear (the rapid heartbeat, the sweat, the heavy breathing) will better acquaint them with the feelings of anxiety, and thus help them cope better when actual anxiety strikes. Exposing an individual with high anxiety sensitivity to the physiological sensations of exercise may illustrate that the discomfort they experience does not have to pose a threat.

Another point of interest from the report discusses exercise’s ties to self-efficacy, a belief in one’s potential to succeed in a situation/execute a task. Individuals who have confidence in their ability to conquer a situation or threat (thus demonstrating high self-efficacy) aren’t plagued by thoughts of worry, and experience lower levels of anxiety arousal (the physiological symptoms of anxiety).

The psychologist Albert Bandura posited that psych treatment is successful if it possesses the ability to rebuild a sense of self-efficacy, by supplying experiences of self-mastery. It has been debated that moderate-intensity exercise – which provides an optimal level of challenge – can increase self-efficacy by supplying successful experiences of coping with exercise ‘stress.’ In other words, moderate yet challenging exercise can provide moments of self-mastery, and thereby increase self-efficacy.

Given these interesting findings, TheGoodNarrative is curious to know how you cope when anxiety hits. Do you turn to physical activity (PA) as a stress/anxiety-reliever? If so, what kind of activities do you participate in? If you do not presently employ PA as a stress/anxiety-reliever, what are some ways you can incorporate it into your self-care regime?

Find more information on anxiety here and here.

(featured image from Retrosweat)


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