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.

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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 ?

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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/.

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Jen

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

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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.

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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.

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JF

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

Reply

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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