There is a subtle but constant buzz in my body that starts at my chest and radiates out. Even when I don’t feel “stressed,” I am. Or, at least that’s what my body thinks—always under threat. I have struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until college that I realized just how much anxiety was interfering in my life. It was getting in the way of personal and academic goals, straining relationships, and I was starting to experience more frequent panic attacks and depressive episodes. My closest friends and family could see me struggle behind the scenes, but I don’t think the majority of people knew just how truly exhausted it was making me. I could feel how inefficiently I was functioning on a daily basis. I knew that wasn’t something I could sustain, and I didn’t want to put bandaids over systemic issues. I wanted to literally rewrite the thought loop my brain seemed to be stuck in.
I didn’t start exercising in order to alleviate my own symptoms of anxiety and depression. I just started to become more aware of the fact that the times in my life when I was struggling with my mental health were also the times I tended to turn to running and exercise. Perhaps not unlike the family dog, once I am exercised, my energy becomes constructive, not destructive. My mind clears, the internal buzz of anxiety mellows, and I am able to move forward more reasonably, happier even. It was true when I was younger (whether I was conscious of its correlation or not) and it is still true today. This isn’t all in my head; research has made it abundantly evident just how strong the correlation between our physical and mental health is. Our brains are flexible and adaptable organs. Just as you can strengthen and shape your muscles, your brain can be molded--changing and adapting to what you throw at it over the course of your life. Exercise plays a crucial role in keeping our brain strong and resilient by optimizing the way it functions. It can help us improve cognitive functions like learning, attention, and memory. It can improve our mood, alleviating physical and emotional symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression.
We are, collectively, a pretty stressed out group of people. More than half of all Americans report moderate to high stress, 18% of the population suffers from some form of anxiety disorder, and nearly 7% are affected by major depression. While it does make me slightly better knowing that I am not at all alone in my practice of mental wellness, those are not fun statistics. What makes me feel genuinely better is knowing that we are not resigned to these mindsets indefinitely. We can make a dent in the mental and physical impacts long-term stress, anxiety, or depression can have on us.
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON STRESS
Stress is any kind of demand put on our body and the call to action to respond. The physical and chemical responses that our bodies experience during times of stress are important adaptive behaviors we have acquired to survive, but experiencing them chronically (and often times unnecessarily) can have detrimental effects on both brain and body. Cortisol is the hormone that is fueling your body during those moments of stress. Consistently high levels of cortisol due to chronic stress can actually damage brain tissue and disrupt natural metabolic and mental processes. Excessive cortisol can impair learning, memory, and mood--anxiety and depression are associated with high levels of cortisol in the body. Stress is certainly not the singular cause for anxiety or depression, but chronic stress can certainly make us more susceptible to developing these disorders.
Chronic anxiety and depression are ultimately a breakdown of communication in our brain--physical changes in our brains’ hard-wiring. Our brains get more or less stuck on replay of fearful memories or in negative-thought loops. Anxious and depressed brains begin to lose their flexibility and adaptability. They lose their ability to rewire and appropriately adjust when their communication is no longer beneficial.
BUT. We have direct and immediate access to one of those most effective ways of tapping into the hormones that can quite literally pull us out of our malfunctioning brain hardware. We just have to get our bodies moving.
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON EXERCISE
When we exercise, we are creating an environment in our brain that nourishes and encourages both learning and overall positive feelings by releasing a variety of chemicals. Here is a brief rundown of our important players:
· Endorphins work to both dull pain and produce a kind of euphoric feeling in the mind
· Norepinephrine increases attention and improves self-esteem
· Dopamine, which is considered the “reward system,” is associated with motivation, attention, and gives us a sense of satisfaction for accomplishing a task
· Serotonin regulates our mood and is involved in impulse control and self-esteem
· Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) acts as “Miracle-Gro,” it’s like fertilizer for brain cells to develop, communicate, and even grow new cells (specifically in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is related to learning and memory)
When talking about the physiological root of mental illnesses, we are often, in part, talking about an imbalance of these very hormones. You can probably tell just by looking at their functions that if one or several are sleeping on the job (or are putting in overtime), it will likely have a sizeable impact on how our brains and bodies operate in both the short term and long term. It is why I feel better during and after exercise and why I've felt better overall the last couple of years. My brain is rebalancing some of the chemicals anxiety has thrown out of whack. Exercise has helped me literally rewire my brain by giving me (and my brain) the appropriate tools for managing anxiety. I have a more grounded sense of how I can break up harsh and destructive self-talk, senseless worry and fear, and ease the uncomfortable physical symptoms of my anxiousness. I am helping my body work with my brain to live a far less frazzled life, and I'm a much happier human for it.
It isn’t simply a matter of “the more the better” when it comes to these hormones in the brain. They work in a delicate balance to regulate our brains and bodies to function better. Exercise alone might not be the sole answer to curing a person of a chronic condition like anxiety or depression, but what it can do is rebalance the emotional circuitry in our brain and give our brain the kind of fuel it needs to establish a nourishing environment for learning, memory, and mood, among so many other long-term benefits. When it’s good for your body, it’s good for your brain.