How to Calm Anxiety and Depression – The Easy Way to Restore Vital Neurochemicals

Getting hot and sweaty might not be great for comfort but it’s brilliant for mental health. If getting hot and sweaty isn’t your thing, stay with me – there are other ways to get the full mental health benefits of exercise without the intensity and your brain will love you for it – like, love you. Exercise is the wonderdrug-but-not-a-drug of the mental health world. Volumes of research have testified to its incredible capacity to strengthen mental health, and now we’re starting to uncover why. 

There is no doubt that exercise is as important to mental health as it is to physical health. People with anxiety and depression have lower levels of vital neurochemicals. The exact cause of these lower levels is unclear and researchers are working hard to understand the full picture. What we do know is that regardless of the cause, when the levels of these neurochemicals are restored to healthy levels, the symptoms of anxiety and depression tend to fade. 

Neurochemicals are chemicals in the brain that allow brain cells to communicate with each other. Everything we do depends on the strength of this chatter between brain cells. The better the communication between cells (as in faster and stronger) the stronger that part of the brain will be, and the more effectively the different parts of the brain will work together. 

Two of the neurochemicals that have an important role in mental health, particularly anxiety and depression, are glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid – let’s call it ‘GABA’ for short.

New research published in the Journal of Neuroscience has found that exercise restores the levels of these two neurochemicals to healthy levels. 

How exercise strengthens the brain against anxiety.

Some brain cells are born with the personality of puppies. They are easily excited and quick to fire up. We need these. They are healthy and normal and help us to function when we need to be ‘on’. It is because of these excitable neurons (brain cells) that we can think quickly, act quickly and remember. In the right amount and at the right times, these neurons are little gems. 

To stop the excitable neurons getting too carried away and causing trouble, the brain has a neurochemical, GABA, which is the brain’s ‘calm down’ chemical. GABA plays a key role in the way the body responds to stress. Its main job is to settle the brain cells that get a little too playful and over-excited. If the levels of GABA in the brain are low, there’s nothing to calm these over-excited neurons. 

Sometimes too much of a good thing is wonderful. Sometimes it causes anxiety. When there are too many excited neurons firing up for some fight or flight action in the absence of any real need, anxiety happens. Anxiety is the brain doing what healthy brains are meant to do, but a little too much. 

Most of the substances that ease the symptoms of anxiety (alcohol, medication) work by boosting GABA in the brain. A group of drugs that are commonly used for anxiety are benzodiazepines. They work by mimicking the role of GABA in the brain. These drugs have been prescribed widely for anxiety but research is now discovering that extended term use has enormous potential to harm the brain. Exercise is a healthy, non-synthetic way to elevate the same neurochemicals that are targeted by anti-anxiety medication.

How exercise eases depression.

Sometimes we need neurons to fire, but sometimes they can fire unnecessarily (as in anxiety) and we need them to calm down. The balance of excitement and inhibition of neurons needs to be kept in check. When the balance is knocked out, it can lead to anxiety or depression.

Glutamate is the main chemical in the brain that is responsible for stimulating the neurons that need to fire. It is involved in memory, emotions and cognition. When the levels of glutamate are too low or too high, depression happens.  

When the levels of glutamate are too high. 

The role of glutamate in the depression is complicated and depends on the levels in particular areas of the brain. Elevated levels of glutamate have been found in the brains of people with depression, specifically in the basal ganglia, an area that has a key role in motor control, motivation and decision-making. High levels of glutamate in this part of the brain have been associated with anhedonia (an inability to experience pleasure), and slow motor function.

When glutamate is too high, it can become toxic to neurons and glia (the cells that make sure the brain stays healthy). There is extensive research evidence that supports the relationship between systemic inflammation and depression. People with depression have all the primary markers of systemic inflammation (caused by stress, diet, toxins, allergies, illness). Researchers now think that one of the ways that inflammation may do this is by increasing glutamate levels in critical areas of the brain. 

‘We think that one of the ways that inflammation may harm the brain and cause depression is by increasing levels of glutamate in sensitive regions of the brain, possibly through effects on glia.‘ – Ebrahim Haroon, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute. 

And when the levels of glutamate are too low.

A large body of research has found that people with depression have low levels of glutamate in certain areas of the brain. These are the areas that are changed through exercise.

According to the STAR*D trial (Sequenced Treatment Alternatives to Relieve Depression), the largest clinical trial study of treatments for major depressive disorder and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, only about one third of people who use anti-depressants find long-term relief from their symptoms. For the remaining two thirds, treatment with an anti-depressant alone is not enough to relieve their depression.

Clearly something is missing. An abundance of research has shown that exercise may be the key. The research is early but it gives hope that exercise might be an effective alternative or adjunct to antidepressants. The researchers note that exercise as an alternative might be particularly important for people under the age of 25, who can sometimes experience more side effects from SSRIs, the widely used class of antidepressants that synthetically adjust the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. 

How exercise builds a happy brain.

Exercise elevates the levels of glutamate in the areas where it needs elevating.

Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that after exercise, significant increases in glutamate were found in the visual cortex (which processes visual information) and the anterior cingulate cortex (which in involved in keeping heart rate steady, some cognitive functions and emotion). People who did not exercise did not show these increases.

‘Major depressive disorder is often characterized by depleted glutamate and GABA, which return to normal when mental health is restored. Our study shows that exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters.’ – Richard Maddock, study lead author and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of California.

The effects of exercise on glutamate were still evident in the week following the exercise session.

During exercise, the brain uses up a lot of fuel in the form of glucose and other carbs, but up until recently, we haven’t understood what the brain does with all of that energy. Now we have an idea. It seems that the brain is slurping up energy to make more of the neurochemicals that the brain needs to stay healthy and strong.

And if vigorous exercise isn’t your thing …

If you firmly believe that under no circumstances should ‘vigorous’ ever be paired with ‘exercise’, then not to worry – science has your back too. New research has found that exercise and relaxation like yoga can ease anxiety. Relaxation and exercise aren’t two words that you would typically expect to find together (or maybe that’s just me) – but there they are. They’ve finally found each other and we’re all the better for it. 

How to start exercising when your favourite thing is ‘not exercising’.

Exercise can be a hard thing to get into if avoiding it is one of the things you do spectacularly well. The key is to start. The more you do it, the easier it will get. Pretty soon, you’ll feel the difference it makes to your mood, even if you’re still waiting for your muscles to arrive. 

  1. Find what you love.

    Anything that gets your heart pumping will be good for you, but the more you enjoy it, the more you’ll stick with it. Think team sports, walking up a hill outdoors, dancing, martial arts, kicking a ball, riding a bike or a brisk walk. You’re looking for long-term changes in brain health and mood, which will mean a long-term plan. 

  2. ‘Vigorous’ means whatever is vigorous for you.

    You just need to get your heart going. This will look different for everyone, depending on where you’re starting from. It doesn’t have to mean punching out 45 minutes on the ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ level of on an exercise bike. It could be a brisk 20 minute walk or 8-10 minutes of going up and down the stairs a couple of times a day. Whatever works for you. Try for something you can do at least five times a week.

  3. Ahhh the feel-good. You know it’s coming.

    Exercise triggers the release of endorphins and other feel-good chemicals. Know that they’re coming – but you’ll have to work for them. Some people will thrive on getting hot and sweaty, but for those of us who are more worried about not collapsing than thriving, knowing that the feel-good is coming can keep you on track. Be mindful of how you feel in the hours after you exercise and use this to tap into some needed motivation when you need to. Think of it as therapy. Or just remind yourself that this (session) too shall pass.

  4. Just get your shoes on … and then decide.

    Doing something hard involves a series of simple things put end to end. If you hate the thought of exercise, don’t tell yourself that’s what you’re doing. Your body will go wherever your mind puts it. Start with the first simple step. Let’s say, clothes. Tell yourself that you’ll get dressed into something that would be okay to exercise in and then you’ll decide what to do next – it might be exercise, it might be changing back into your comfy pants and eating spaghetti in front of tv. Once you’re dressed, you may as well put your shoes on. That’s all you have to do. After that, then you can decide. When your shoes are on, walk outside the front door and then see how you feel. Once you’ve done this you’ll have some momentum up and it will be easier to keep going than it will be to stop. Just tell yourself you’re going to only take one small step. It’s ridiculous how convincing you can be.

  5. Be nice to you. OK?

    If you miss a day, don’t let that slow you down. You haven’t wrecked it and it isn’t all for nothing. Just keep going tomorrow. If you whip yourself too hard when things don’t go right, the temptation to pull out all together will be immense. 

And finally …

Brains were meant to be in bodies that move. Fortunately, they don’t need to move that well. Modern living has meant that we have everything at our fingertips. This is a beautiful thing – having to hunt for food and move between caves is something we can all do without, but we need to make sure that we give our stone-age brains what they need to thrive. One of the most vital of these is exercise. Though we are still working to understand why exercise is so important to mental health, we know for certain that the relationship is there, and that it’s a powerful one.

20 Comments

Sobuj

Hey Karen! You did it wonderfully. If we are aware of our feeling, then we need to exercise regularly. Your information helps me very much because I have depression and severe anxiety. Anyway, thank you very much for the nice sharing.

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Angelica J

I’ve read the articles and yet i’m at dismay. I am a very concerned person of my own health and it may affect my family in a negative manner. How do i keep my personal feelings from interrupting the exercises to keep me straight.

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Karen Young

You can feel one way, and act another. Be aware of what you are feeling, then exercise regardless of how you feel. When you exercise consistently, it will start to help the way you feel by the changes it causes in your brain.

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Gwen

Wonderful, Wonderful, Wonderful!!! Thank you, thank you, thank you for that breakdown on the benefits of exercise for depression and anxiety. Im just getting into mindfulness also. I am looking forward to having some great changes in my life. I just discovered your site and look forward to reading more of your articles.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks so much Gwen! Mindfulness is amazing. It’s great that you’re giving it a go. I’m pleased you found me and I hope you keep finding plenty of helpful info here.

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Chet

Excellent article……but don’t forget the benefit you receive from an increase in the neurotransmitters Dopamine and Serotonin. Normal Dopamine levels are necessary for proper executive function (planning and completing tasks), proper sensory function (seeing,hearing etc.), blood pressure control and the reward system (feeling of happiness). Serotonin levels are associated with moodiness, anxiety and depression.

Thanks for bringing exercise to the forefront, as it is so important for our physical and mental well being.

Reply
Nancy

I have M E and Sciatica. I don’t have the energy or mobility to exercise. If I over exert myself I end up in bed for days, even a simple short walk can totally drain me. I have depression & severe anxiety. What can I do to help myself please.

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Anamika

Having OCD, has become a big hurdle to go out, forget running. I used to love cycling. But after this OCD, am always worried about not getting dirt touching me, scared of birds droppings, stamping on something dirty on road.
I want to be free from this and be relaxed and happy, but how is what I wonder.

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Hey Sigmund

Anamika it sounds like OCD is really making things tough for you. If it’s getting in the way of your everyday life, it might be helpful to get outside support in the form of counselling. Mindfulness is amazing and there is plenty of research that has shown how it can strengthen the brain against anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/overcoming-anxiety-mindfulness/. And this article talks about how https://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-what-how-why/. Here is an article that you might also find useful https://www.heysigmund.com/our-second-brain-and-stress-anxiety-depression-mood/. It explains the very strong connection between the mental health and the gut and what you can do to help things along. I hope there is something here that is helpful for you.

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Gail

What about anxiety and depression that has been caused by pushing oneself to exhaustion by overwork and apparently in someone who has been exercising a lot and regularly ?

Reply
Hey Sigmund

As with so many things, too much exercise is too much. Even the things we need to stay alive (think oxygen, healthy food, water) will do damage if there is too much. Physical exhaustion will stress the body and the mind and will cause it’s own problems. Other things that are also important to a healthy, balanced life and strong mental health are sleep, healthy food, social connection, relaxation or stillness (as in mindfulness). It’s important to balance exercise with other lifestyle facts. Here is an article that might be able to help you https://www.heysigmund.com/the-non-medication-ways-to-deal-with-depression-that-are-as-effective-as-medication/.

Reply
Jen

Would love to print this and to share on Facebook but can’t find an option to do either.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Yes Jen I can help you with that. On a laptop or desktop the share buttons are on the left hand side of the article. The print button is the green one at the bottom. On a mobile, you’ll find the share buttons behind the grey ‘Share This’ bar at the bottom of the page. When you touch it, it will expand and you’ll see the different share options. Hope that helps. And thanks for sharing!

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Dawn-marie

All this exercise is good for you is all very well but what if you are unable to exercise due to disabilitys? I used to live the gym n lots of different exercises but due to an injury in my back im now not very mobile.Ive put a lot of the 12st i lost back on as im the type that finds it difficult to lose weight without exercising.This has also lead to major depression as u can imagine so wot can I do when I can’t exercise.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Dawn-marie I understand the difference not being able to exercise must have made to you and your life. It sounds as though it used to be an important part of your life, which would make not being able to exercise all the more harder. Here is an article that might be interesting for you https://www.heysigmund.com/the-non-medication-ways-to-deal-with-depression-that-are-as-effective-as-medication/.

Also, if you’re not already doing it, I would really urge you to try mindfulness. It has proven to be really effective as a therapy option for depression. Here is an article that explains the research https://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-as-effective-as-medication-in-preventing-relapse-in-depression/. And this one explains the how https://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-what-how-why/. Another great way to get started is with the Smiling Minds app. Here it is if you want to have a look at that http://smilingmind.com.au. Hopefully this will give you something to try.

Reply
JF

Awesome timing! Great motivation. I love your articles. Keep up the good work.

Reply

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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