Feeling stressed? Anxiety getting the better of you?
What do you do?
Often, our first impulse is to do less. We want to curl up and put our heads in the sand. However, while that might seem like it would make sense – it can actually be the very worst thing you can do. The reason for this is simple: the more you curl up and the more you refuse to get active, the more you will regress into a state of inactivity and low energy.
Instead, you need to get outside. Meet people. Feel the sun on your face. Distract yourself with fun and interesting activities.
In fact, one of the very best things you can do is to get out there and exercise. When we exercise, it triggers a huge number of changes in our bodies and minds that chemically change our moods. In fact, many people consider exercise to be one of the best natural antidepressants in the world.
Let’s take a look at just why that is and why you need to make exercise a part of your life if you want to protect yourself against stress.
Exercise & Neurotransmitters
Why do you think it is that you get stressed in the first place?
Of course, your first thought might be your boss, coworkers or something else that makes you feel regularly anxious. But in reality, it is not your boss that makes you stressed. Rather, it is your reaction to your boss. It is what happens in your brain when your boss shouts at you, which in turn is a result of the way you feel about their opinion etc.
Specifically, this is caused by the release of cortisol, norepinephrine and other excitatory stress neurotransmitters. When your brain senses danger, it releases these chemicals and as a result, you feel anxious and upset. The word "danger" is used loosely here though, as it doesn’t have to be physical danger but could just as well be danger of being shouted at, or of losing your job.
This is where the exercise comes in. Because when you exercise, you do are doing something that your brain thinks is positive. Exercise helps make the body stronger and so its response is to release ‘feel-good’ hormones like serotonin, dopamine and other endorphins. These are reward chemicals and they are fantastic at improving our mood and making us feel content.
In fact, this is one of the reasons that many people find running to be addictive–due to what is known as the "runners’ high".
More Stress Management Techniques
Strong Body = Strong Mind
But this has even bigger implications in the long term. Because exercise also has the ability to improve brain function, which in turn helps us to feel more capable and less overwhelmed.
One way exercise can do this is by increasing the amount of mitochondria in the cells. Mitochondria are the small "energy factories" that convert ATP into usable glucose. The more of these we have, the more efficient we become at running, lifting and even thinking.
Think about how stressed you feel when you’re overtired. When you’ve been stressed for days and you’ve not had enough sleep–and you have no time to rest in the near future. That’s an awful feeling because your body will be crying out to get a break.
But now imagine how much easier that would feel if your body had ample energy and if your mood was high as a result. If you can improve your body’s energy efficiency and your cellular function, then you can help that to happen.
Oh and of course exercise also improves sleep, which will further help to improve your mood in the short-term and the long term.
Note: You’ll get even more benefits from your training as far as mood goes if you can motivate yourself to train outdoors. This way, you’ll get fresh air and sunlight, both of which also boost the mood!
Training Makes You Feel Invincible
One more reason hat working out and exercising can make you feel less stressed?
The simple fact that exercising teaches you that you can accomplish anything. When you train, you face yourself with challenges–can you run this far? Can you lift this much? Can you motivate yourself to get up even when you’re feeling too tired to do anything?
By taking on these challenges and repeatedly overcoming them, you are teaching yourself that you can do anything and that no challenge is too much for you. And when you do that, you will notice amazing improvements in your mood and your ability to take on problems in your real life.
A good example of how this works can be seen in research on Learned Helplessness. This is a condition that results from multiple failed attempts to improve your circumstances. Eventually, the brain just "gives in" and stops trying. But if you make sure you keep pushing yourself further and winning in the gym, then you will find that you are much more resilient to challenges out there in the real world.
Of course, it also helps that exercise helps you to feel confident about yourself. When you are in great shape and people are looking at you for all the right reasons, it really does help to boost your mood!
So, the next time you find that things are getting a little on top of you, resist the urge to pull the covers over your head and go back to bed. In fact, the very best thing you can do is to pull yourself out of bed and get some exercise. You’ll benefit from the fresh air and from the sunshine and at the same time, you’ll trigger chemical reactions in your brain that immediately boost your mood.
More than that though, you’ll show yourself that no challenge is too much. That you’re never going to give up.
Dig deep and the more you do it, the easier it will become.