Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on July 13, 2011
In a new study, scientists found that people with “high anxiety sensitivity” — an intense fear of the nausea, racing heart, dizziness, stomach aches and shortness of breath that accompany panic — reacted with less anxiety to a panic-inducing stressor if they had been engaging in high levels of physical activity.
“Anxiety sensitivity is an established risk factor for the development of panic and related disorders,” said psychologist Dr. Jasper Smits of Southern Methodist University, lead author on the research.
“This study suggests that this risk factor may be less influential among persons who routinely engage in high levels of physical activity.”
Prior findings have documented the benefits of exercise among people who suffer from depression and anxiety.
“We’re not suggesting, ‘Exercise instead of pharmacotherapy or psychotherapy,’” Smits said. “Exercise is a useful alternative, particularly for those without access to traditional treatments. Primary care physicians already prescribe exercise for general health, so exercise may have the advantage of helping reach more people in need of treatment for depression and anxiety.”
The research findings are published online and are in press with the scientific journal Psychosomatic Medicine.
The new study adds to earlier research that suggest exercise improves mood and reduces anxiety, working like “an antidepressant drug” (Otto and Smits, 2011). Also, a 2008 study by Smits, and Otto indicated that exercise can also reduce anxiety sensitivity.
That research, combined with the new findings, indicates that exercise may be an effective strategy for the prevention and treatment of anxiety disorders.
“Exercise can be a powerful addition to the range of treatments for depression, anxiety and general stress,” said Otto. “And when people exercise to feel good, they are also taking the exact steps they need to benefit their general health.”
Sensitivity to High Anxiety
Anxiety sensitivity is the extent to which individuals fear they will be harmed by anxiety-related bodily sensations such as a racing heart, dizziness and shortness of breath, say the authors.
Research shows that the higher a person’s anxiety sensitivity, the greater their risk for developing panic attacks and related psychological disorders.
“For people who have high anxiety sensitivity, the symptoms of anxiety tend to signal threat,” said Smits.
“They worry, ‘I’ll have a panic attack,’ ‘I’ll die,’ ‘I’ll go crazy,’ ‘I’ll lose control’ or ‘I’ll make a fool of myself.’ That’s been widely studied as one of the risk factors for development of anxiety disorders, mostly panic. And it’s a robust risk factor in that it’s been replicated in several studies.”
In the current study, the researchers wanted to see if the anxiety reaction to a panic-related stressor would be different among individual who perform high levels of physical activity.
Study participants included 145 adult volunteers who had no history of panic attacks.
After completing questionnaires measuring their physical activity and anxiety sensitivity, the participants inhaled a mixture of room air enriched with carbon dioxide. Inhalation of carbon dioxide is a benign procedure that typically induces a number of bodily sensations, including nausea, racing heart, dizziness, stomach aches and shortness of breath.
After inhalation, participants indicated their level of anxiety in reaction to the sensations.
The results showed that anxiety reactivity to the stressor was dampened among individuals who have been regularly engaging in high levels of physical activity.
Source: Southern Methodist University