Exercise and anxiety

I've been pretty honest here on ED Bites about my struggles with exercise addiction and anxiety, both of which have played a large role in the formation and maintenance of my eating disorder. I began formally exercising in college as a way to "get in shape" and also because I heard exercise was good at helping people manage stress. I was stressed to the max, having leaped right into all sophomore classes my freshman year, and so I began the daily trek to the fitness center at my college.

Before my eating and exercise turned pathological on me, and even now that I am in a very different place, recovery-wise, my exercise sessions were very therapeutic. I do feel better--mentally and physically--after a ride on my bike or a brisk walk. In the past, though, when my anxiety has risen from its usual normal highs into the stratosphere on a straight shot to the ex-planet Pluto, I became dependent upon exercise to help manage this anxiety. And I needed more and more exercise to get the same effects. In short, I was in trouble.

The link between exercise and reduced anxiety is fairly well known in psychology and neuroscience circles, but scientists had yet to figure out how exactly this worked. At this year's annual Society for Neuroscience conference, a group of scientists presented research results that give some indication as to how exactly exercise could help with anxiety management.

From the Well blog by Tara Parker-Pope:

In the experiment...scientists allowed one group of rats to run. Another set of rodents was not allowed to exercise. Then all of the rats swam in cold water, which they don’t like to do. Afterward, the scientists examined the animals’ brains. They found that the stress of the swimming activated neurons in all of the brains. (The researchers could tell which neurons were activated because the cells expressed specific genes in response to the stress.) But the youngest brain cells in the running rats, the cells that the scientists assumed were created by running, were less likely to express the genes. They generally remained quiet. The “cells born from running,” the researchers concluded, appeared to have been “specifically buffered from exposure to a stressful experience.” The rats had created, through running, a brain that seemed biochemically, molecularly, calm.

...Anxiety in rodents and people has been linked with excessive oxidative stress, which can lead to cell death, including in the brain. Moderate exercise, though, appears to dampen the effects of oxidative stress.

...“It looks more and more like the positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms,” says Michael Hopkins, a graduate student affiliated with the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Laboratory at Dartmouth, who has been studying how exercise differently affects thinking and emotion. “It’s pretty amazing, really, that you can get this translation from the realm of purely physical stresses to the realm of psychological stressors.”

Precisely what causes some people to slide over from the beneficial anxiety-reducing effects of exercise and into exercise addiction is unknown. Some of it might be a growing tolerance to the anxiolytic effects of one's current exercise program. Some of it might have something to do with dopamine and the brain's addiction circuits. And some of it, I can't even guess at.

For me, the exercise was a time when I would "hide out" from my anxiety. When I was exercising, I had my iPod blaring and my cell phone switched to vibrate. The report that was due at work the next day didn't matter while I was working out. Figuring out how to pay the bills didn't matter. My sad, pathetic excuse for a social life didn't matter. In the same way one of my friends would stay in bed all day when her anxiety got really bad, I stayed at the gym all day. After exercising, I was usually too exhausted to care much about the things that were making me anxious.

Still, the understanding of how our brains respond to exercise is fascinating and important in helping people better benefit from physical activity and in understanding how to better treat exercise dependence and addiction.

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Cathy (UK) said...

I can identify with everything you have written here Carrie... Over-exercise (and exercising in a very ritualistic manner) have been a bigger problem for me then has under-eating.

Indeed, my anorexia nervosa started with over-exercising. I only started to restrict when I injured my back through over-training and was unable to exercise. My anxiety levels skyrocketed and I couldn't bear the thought of food. All I could think of was how I craved exercise.

I have often felt that the best way to describe my anorexia nervosa is as 'a collection of compulsive, ritualised behaviours that allow me to control my unusually high levels of anxiety'.

Exercise is a VERY effective tranquiliser!

However, the role of exercise for me was also linked to my identity. I had always done sport (swimming, running, cycling) and so I liked myself if a training session went well and disliked myself if it didn't. My early morning exercise regime either made of broke my day.

The rat model of 'exercise anorexia' is often described to explain exercise addiction/dependence in anorexia nervosa - and one of the key hormone that appears to be involved in mediating over-activity during starvation is leptin. Over-exercising, starved mice with negligible serum levels of leptin stop exercising when given the hormone, despite continued fasting....

Anonymous said...

how do you find a balance?
how do you find a way to like your body, even when, in my case, it's becoming more "womanly" - larger hips and thighs and breasts -- my sig other loves it but i have such a hard time, bc the "healthy" part of me doesn't yet mesh with the "sick" part that tells me to get some of that fat off (even tho i know, i know, the "fat" is going to help me get better, get my period, etc etc)

Kim said...

This is very interesting. I have a somewhat complicated relationship with exercise for many of the same reasons you mentioned. I do get benefits from it. I know it helps my anxiety. But, it can cross a line. For me, the problem is the ritual that takes shape. I become attached to that. Like you said, I think it could be related to dopamine, or just the idea of constantly needing to do more to get the same effect. Just this past week, I stopped my exercise routine, which caused me a lot of anxiety, but now has been no big deal. I can feel when I want to go for a walk or something, but I know I have to be wary of that becoming a "have to."

Entangled said...

What's so hard is figuring out when the anxiety reduction of exercise is healthy and when it crosses the line.

I also have a lot of anxiety issues and exercise helps a lot. It's a time out from the mental and a focus on the physical. It feels good and relaxing to work myself hard that way and there are definitely days when I notice an extreme change in mood after working out. Sometimes it's a pain thing - a really hard interval workout makes everything else disappear next to the pain of working to a higher speed and the exhilaration of getting there. But interval workouts are NOT something you can do every day without injury, just like punching a wall when you're really really angry might occasionally save you from attacking someone but is a very bad habit to get into regularly. But a little is okay, if it can stay that way.

At the same time, sometimes my exercise routine itself becomes a source of stress. There are days when I stress out because I haven't worked out or didn't work hard enough (though I'm getting better). So if the exercise makes that anxiety go away? It's not a good thing. Just like landing safely after a long flight(for a totally unrelated example) doesn't really do anything about the roots of fear of flying.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to tell you that I am so glad you posted all of this! I am going to read it more thoroughly tomorrow--but thank you so much for posting this. I've really struggled with over/compulsive exercise.

ola said...

I can relate to every point you have written, I would just like to add one point/question - for me exercising is actually one of the biggest (and maybe unhealthy) motivations for eating more and having more energy for it.

Should definitely unhelathy obsession be motivation for something definitely positive (healthy weight/i am almost at my target weiht now, "healthiest" in years) at the same time?

Thanks for your inspirative post(s)!

RCK said...

Carrie, I so appreciate your examination of this issue. Exercise was a huge part of my anorexia, although I wasn't a "gym rat" by any means; I just walked or ran everywhere, to the extent that I literally thought I would gain weight by sitting still in class or on the bus.

I still have a huge problem with exercise but it's flipped to the opposite direction--I became bulimic in recovery from restrictive anorexia (about 4 years ago now) and have a hard time exercising without anxiety because it brings back such vivid physical sensations of pain, cold, deprivation, tiredness, dizziness etc. I'm nowhere near where I was physically--I'm a third bigger now, which I hear is good--but I cannot stop beating myself up for not exercising as much as I used to, particularly because I'm so ashamed of the binge-purge cycle, in which I consume ridiculous amounts of food. I still walk everywhere, but I limit myself by taking the bus part-way and not going on dedicated "walk until I drop" outings. I know that this is a healthier attitude and my life is rich in friends and other things I never used to have time for, but as a *former* exercise-addict, I can't stand that I don't want to exercise anymore. All of the moral failure etc. that I associate with being "fat" now goes into the fact that I don't compulsively work out.

Thanks for letting me rant. I'm curious--do other recovered AN sufferers and/or BN sufferers have the same anxiety about exercising due to past associations?

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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