You know physical activity is good for you, and that lack of exercise is associated with negative physical and mental outcomes. However, did you know exercise is also an effective way to stop a panic attack in its tracks?

Studies with large samples of participants consistently demonstrate a positive association between exercise and lower emotional distress in healthy individuals and in people who suffer from anxiety and extreme panic.

One study, for example, compared the effectiveness of exercise on panic disorders. For 10 weeks, participants either exercised or took an antidepressant or placebo. At the end of the 10 weeks, those who exercised or took the antidepressant both exhibited a significant improvement in all primary mental health outcome measures compared to the placebo, although the antidepressant produced results earlier and more effectively.

Srinivasan Pillay, a psychiatrist and brain-imaging researcher, says an immediate bout of exercise can also reduce anxiety and panic attack frequency, even in people with panic disorder. He suspects exercise reduces panic caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide (which can trigger panic), and by a hormone called CCK-4. Exercise also releases endorphins, which make us feel good.

Pillay says areas of the brain that activate when we are anxious, particularly the amygdala, are connected to those areas that activate when we start moving. Your body naturally shifts blood flow to areas that need it, so by moving, you increase activity in the movement centers and decrease activity in the amygdale. The basic premise, he says, is that when you give your brain something that demands attention, it shuts off anxiety.

Don't worry; you don't have to become a marathoner to control your panic attacks. Moderately intense exercise such as walking is actually more effective than vigorous exercise. Experts suspect using exercise as an active coping strategy also gives patients a "sense of mastery" that reliance on drugs does not.

Even if you are taking medication or undergoing psychotherapy for panic attacks, you can incorporate exercise with your other treatments. It's also a good option for those who can't, or don't want to, take drugs. Check with your physician before beginning an exercise program if you've been sedentary.

You can be your own research study of one. Keep an activity diary, recording your daily physical activity along with the severity and frequency of your panic attacks and depression and anxiety symptoms. Over time, you can judge how effective exercise is for reducing your panic levels.


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Pillay, Srinivasan. "Dealing With Recession Panic: The Science of Physical Exercise." Web. 31 March 2009.

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