I woke up with anxiety the other day. I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, so that was probably the main cause, but I’ve also been unusually busy with work. As I got up and started to move around, I could feel that telltale flutter of anxiety in my chest. It wasn’t tied to anything specific that’s going on, it was just there.
If I didn’t do something about it, that anxiety was going to bother me all day. There was enough to do already. I didn’t need or want that uncomfortable anxious feeling following me around.
I should say here, too, that just because I was experiencing anxiety (and perhaps you, too, might experience periodic anxiety) doesn’t mean that I, or you, have an anxiety disorder. Speaking for myself, as a doctor I’m aware that I don’t have “clinical” levels of anxiety, but I still deal with anxious feelings from time to time and prefer to handle them wisely.
How to Tell the Difference Between “Normal” and Problematic Anxiety
In case you’re curious about how I know that I don’t have problematic anxiety, there’s a helpful screening tool that we doctors use: the GAD-7. It’s not intended as a tool to diagnose yourself, but if you look at the questions and how they’re scored, it may help you gauge how serious your anxiety is. Of course, I would always recommend this to be in discussion with your doctor. If your anxiety is negatively impacting your life (work, school, relationships or sleep etc.) and has been bothering you for more than a couple of weeks, you should talk to your doctor or a qualified counseling professional, period.
Now, back to my anxious day. As I’ve written about before, low blood sugar can cause anxiety symptoms. I’d already had some food with a good dose of protein and fat, so that likely wasn’t the cause today. And despite having done my morning mindfulness practice, I still felt off. What else could I do, to change how I was feeling? I decided to go for a power walk.
There hasn’t been a lot of rigorous, well-designed research about the impact of walking on clinical anxiety. However, a 2018 review article that looked at 15 randomized controlled trials found that aerobic exercise was indeed effective, especially if done at a higher intensity level.
Exercise Can Help An Anxious Heart
I often share the story of a trauma expert whose lecture I attended at a conference. She told the whole audience that she suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and that her mandatory morning exercise routine was the one thing that kept her anxiety at bay. If she exercised first thing, it was as if her anxiety wasn’t even a thing.
When I worked in mental health, I always recommended exercise to my patients. I also instructed them to pay attention to how they felt after. Over and over, I would hear what a powerful impact it had on their moods and their ability to cope with stress.
That anxious day, I made sure that my walk was truly a “power” walk. When I’m stressed, upset, angry, or anxious, a good brisk stompy walk (easily done with big boots on a snowy path, as I did that day) is enormously helpful. I also chose a route with uphill climbs and walked as quickly as I could.
Though I walked for about forty minutes, it took a while for the stress and anxiety to dissipate. On the return leg of the walk, I could feel it starting to lift.
Notice How Much Better a Walk Makes You Feel
When I was back home, and had to talk to someone about a mildly challenging situation, I suddenly realized that I was in a really good mood. Normally the stressful topic might have made me feel a stressed, irritated or burdened. Instead, I felt positively sunny about it all. It was really striking, and even a little weird.
A couple of hours later, I noted again that the anxious tension in my chest had been solidly replaced by that sunny optimism. It was hard to imagine that I ever felt anxious, I felt so different. I also felt much more awake, and no longer felt that uncomfortable tension that comes from a lack of sleep.
If you’re an anxious type, I really recommend that you make exercise a part of your daily life. The brisker, the better. Pay attention to how good it makes you feel, and you’ll become an exercise enthusiast for life.