But did you know that exercise can have positive effects in anxiety disorders too? Read on to know how you can take control of your life with the right steps.
The Body-Mind Connection
You may have noticed that you generally feel happy and more confident right after a workout. That is because your body and your mind share a strong connection, which means that by making your body feel good, you can elevate your mood.
There is a strong scientific basis behind this connection. Physical activity in any form â€“ such as sports, dancing, aerobics or gym workouts â€“ triggers the release of certain chemicals in the brain, which are referred to as â€śneurotransmittersâ€ť. These neurotransmitters are chemical signals that generate positive emotions and are responsible for that pleasant post-workout mood. When you exercise on a regular basis, the activation of these neurotransmitters is more consistent, which has a sustained effect on your brain over time.
This is one of the main reasons for using exercise in the management of anxiety disorders. Studies have shown that a regular exercise programme was as effective as other non-medication treatments (such as cognitive behaviour therapy) in treating panic disorders, agoraphobia (fear of places or situations that make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed), and social anxiety, among other anxiety disorders.
Exercise and PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a debilitating psychological condition that occurs after exposure to a single or a series of traumatic events. These may include military combat, terrorism, abuse, rape, childhood neglect, natural disasters, witnessing injury or death, or even hearing about the death or injury of a loved one.
The condition is characterised by persistent negative thoughts, and a tendency to avoid meeting people or visiting places, or participating in any activity that might trigger memories of the traumatic event. This has a huge impact on the personâ€™s daily life, because they are constantly feeling â€śjumpyâ€ť and can even go through times where they relive the traumatic event through reminders. These memories seem so real that they bring about similar feelings of horror that they had when the initial trauma occurred.
Because of these factors, people with PTSD generally tend to lose interest in activities they once enjoyed and become isolated. The current treatments for PTSD include psychotherapy (such as behavioural therapy and exposure therapy) and some medications. However the issue with these is that people have limited access to them, and they are time-consuming and expensive.
The good news is that multiple studies have shown that physical activity/exercise to be a successful form of treatment in people with PTSD. In fact, studies have shown that any form of exercise, be it yoga, resistance training, bicycling or synchronised swimming, has an equal, positive effect on PTSD-affected individuals. These participants reported a significant improvement in their sleep quality, mood, and other symptoms.
How does exercise help in the treatment of PTSD?
At present, there is no solid evidence on the exact mechanism of how exercise works to treat PTSD, but based on the findings from recent studies, the benefits may be attributed to a few factors. One of them is that exercise increases mindfulness, which allows the person to gain more control of their emotions and tolerate physical sensations that they experience during their panic episodes.
Some scientists suggest that the underlying mechanism is based on the physiological processes that the body goes through following exercise. To test this, they conducted studies which involved giving people the chemicals that are thought to be involved in anxiety and are affected by exercise. These included three main hormones in the brain: serotonin (5-HT), melatonin, and oxytocin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter produced by nerve cells. Interestingly, about 90% of serotonin is found in the digestive system from where it is regulated. Serotonin is believed to help balance moods and social behaviour, memory, sleep, appetite and digestion, and sexual drive. When serotonin was administered to people with PTSD in clinical studies, it lead to a notable decrease in anxiety symptoms in these individuals.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in a small gland in the brain, known as the pineal gland. This hormone is responsible for controlling our body clock and sleep-wake cycles. Melatonin levels naturally rise in the night, signalling to the body that it is time to sleep. Melatonin is also thought to act as an anti-oxidant, and be involved in tissue repair and immune system activation. Some studies have shown that when melatonin was given to PTSD-affected individuals, it helped to eliminate the fear associated with the traumatic events.
Oxytocin is a hormone that is produced in the hypothalamus, a region in the brain. Its primary function is to stimulate the contraction of the womb during childbirth and facilitate lactation. However, recent evidence shows that oxytocin plays an important role in social behaviour, particularly recognition, trust, alleviation of anxiety, sexual arousal, and motherâ€“infant bonding. Because of these effects, is sometimes referred to as the ‘cuddle chemical’ or ‘love hormone’. In studies which involved administering oxytocin to individuals with PTSD, the participants showed a marked improvement in depression and other PTSD symptoms.
In addition, a few molecules have been discovered which are thought to help develop muscle strength and aid in exercise. One of these, is Thymosin beta-4, a protein derived from the thymus gland, with several properties involving cell growth that are thought to promote wound healing and curb inflammation. One of the main mechanisms through which Thymosin beta-4 is thought to act is through the regulation of the protein, Actin, which plays a key role in the structure and functionality of muscles. Studies have shown that when Thymosin beta-4 is administered, the skeletal muscle fibres, as well as the muscle fibres in the heart showed increase in the growth rate and strength, as well as faster recovery from muscle injury. This allowed for better exercise endurance, increased energy levels, and general well-being.
Product that may benefit PTSD-affected individuals
Based on the current evidence on exercise and PTSD, and the direct effects of certain hormones, there is reason to believe that products containing these hormones may help in the treatment of PTSD.
Although the findings from existing studies are not adequate to say that these products will suffice as the sole treatment for PTSD, they may certainly facilitate the process of recovery and complement other approved PTSD treatments.
Peptide Clinics (Australia) offers a range of products with each of the hormones thought to be beneficial in the treatment of PTSD:
1. 5HTP Capsules – 5HTP is a multipurpose pro-hormone booster that has multiple benefits and purposes. It is a precursor to serotonin and therefore, melatonin, and assists in increasing these important neurotransmitters. It is the perfect solution to getting both serotonin and melatonin at the same time.
2. Melatonin Capsules â€“ These oral melatonin capsules are custom-compounded and are available in 3 different strengths (1mg, 3mg and 5mg). Apart from lowering anxiety, they also have the added benefits of increased cell reproduction and regeneration, decreasing fat stores, and functional improvement in everyday life.
3. Oxytocin Troches â€“ The oxytocin troches are designed to deliver oxytocin directly to the mucus membranes of the mouth, from where it rapidly enters the bloodstream, allowing for almost instantaneous delivery. In addition to improving PTSD symptoms, oxytocin is also a potent anti-oxidant that plays a role in preventing heart and blood vessel disease and facilitates quicker wound healing.
4. Thymosin Beta 4 â€“ Thymosin beta 4 acts to improve cell regeneration and wound healing, particularly in muscles. It promotes increased muscle tone, muscular endurance, strength, energy levels and general well-being. This product is available as an injectable.
2. Oppizzi, L. and Umberger, R. (2018). The Effect of Physical Activity on PTSD. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 39(2), pp.179-187.
3. Neumeister, A. (2006). What Role Does Serotonin Play in PTSD?. Psychiatric Times, p.50.
4. Huang, F., Yang, Z. and Li, C. (2017). The Melatonergic System in Anxiety Disorders and the Role of Melatonin in Conditional Fear. Anxiety, pp.281-294.
5. Flanagan, J., Sippel, L., Wahlquist, A., Moran-Santa Maria, M. and Back, S. (2018). Augmenting Prolonged Exposure therapy for PTSD with intranasal oxytocin: A randomized, placebo-controlled pilot trial. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 98, pp.64-69.
6. Spurney CF, Cha H-J, Sali A, et al. Evaluation of Skeletal and Cardiac Muscle Function after Chronic Administration of Thymosin Î˛-4 in the Dystrophin Deficient Mouse. Andreu AL, ed. PLoS ONE. 2010;5(1):e8976. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008976.