Exercise, Sleep, and Anxiety: Rewire your brain

Lifestyle habits can have a strong influence on your amygdala.

If you engage in regular aerobic exercise, especially exercise that uses large muscle groups, the positive effects on both your amygdala and your cortex can help improve your mood.

Regular aerobic exercise can also improve your brain’s neuroplasticity, making both your amygdala and your cortex more responsive to the rewiring you’re attempting to achieve.

Furthermore, getting sufficient, good quality sleep can calm the amygdala and make it less reactive to whatever you experience in your daily life, processing the stresses you experience in a more calming way.

Personally, I’ve benefitted from exercise in all of these ways over the years.

When I was a kid, I took dance, gymnastics, and twirled baton. As a young adult, I played paintball. Now, I run really far on trails and enjoy weight lifting and interval training exercises.

I love when the topics of exercise, sleep, and anxiety come up in sessions because they intersect, which you will notice in this read.

Learning about and discussing these lifestyle habits are key when it comes to self-care and habit change. I teach my clients that self-care and knowledge are the base that we build from.

We must have a strong foundation for changes to occur.

Here is a mini disclaimer before moving forward, I have years of experience and knowledge in exercise, I’ve even studied personal fitness training through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), but I do not hold a degree or certification in this area.

I do try to stay somewhat up to date on this topic, as it is part of my lifestyle and being a mindset and mental wellness coach for ultramarathon runners.

I understand the importance of working with a personal trainer, running coach, or other athletics coach.

In this article, you will learn about using exercise to cope, the power of exercise, what exercise might be best for you, coping with sleep difficulties, and mini assessments.

Almost everything in this article comes from the book Rewire Your Anxious Brain. It is such a good book, I highly recommend it, I share more about that towards the end of the article.

Do you struggle with anxiety?

Here’s some really good information on exercise, sleep, and tips for calming amygdala-based anxiety:

A variety of neuroimaging studies and neurophysiological experiments have shown that the amygdala (one location in our brain where anxiety is generated) can be strongly influenced by both exercise and sleep.

Exercise has surprisingly powerful effects on the amygdala, surpassing many antianxiety medications in effectiveness.

Sleep also has a strong impact on the amygdala’s functioning, with lack of sleep leading to heightened anxiety.

Using exercise to cope with anxiety

The fight, flight, or freeze response is programmed into the amygdala. Instead of fighting this ancient response, perhaps we should try to work with it at times.

If your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is activated, you can put it to use as nature intended.

Instead of resisting your body’s preparations to fight or flee, why not look for opportunities to work with that instinct and utilize your muscles in ways that will decrease the amygdala’s activation?

Brief periods of exercise can be very effective in reducing muscle tension (relaxing your muscles can help ease anxiety).

If you walk briskly when you feel anxious, you’ll make use of muscles that have been prepared for action. This will lower levels of adrenaline and use up glucose released into the bloodstream by the stress response.

After you exercise, you’ll experience substantial, long-lasting muscle relaxation.

Effects of exercise on the body

The type of exercise will be most helpful for easing the reactions of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is aerobic exercise, which makes use of large muscle groups in rhythmic movements at a moderate level of intensity.

Common forms of aerobic exercise include running, walking, cycling, swimming, and dancing.

In addition, adhering to a regular exercise program can reduce SNS activation more generally (Rimmel et al. 2007), including decreasing its impact on blood pressure (Fagard 2006) and heart rate (Shiotani et al. 2009). This helps counter the symptoms of an activated amygdala.

Of course, exercise has many other benefits for the body. For example, aerobic exercise tends to increase a person’s metabolic rate and energy level.

So if you use exercise to help you cope with anxiety, you’ll get a windfall of extra benefits.

If you haven’t been exercising regularly, please do consider potential risks. Consult your doctor before you begin, and increase your activity level gradually, not all at once.

Bear in mind that some forms of exercise, like running, are high-impact activities that can lead to a variety of injuries.

However, don’t let your lack of experience discourage you, because almost anyone can do simple forms of exercise, such as walking, without much difficulty or risk.

What exercises might help?

  • Stationary or outdoor biking
  • Hiking
  • Swimming
  • Water aerobics
  • Walking
  • Running
  • Dancing
  • Zumba dance
  • Aerobic dance classes
  • Aerobic step classes
  • Low-Impact aerobics
  • High-Impact aerobics (HIIT)
  • Circuit or interval training
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Online aerobic exercise videos
  • Hot yoga
  • Yoga
  • Jump rope
  • Elliptical
  • Kickboxing

The power of exercise

I highly recommend exercise as a strategy for reducing anxiety because it works. A variety of studies have demonstrated that aerobic exercise can ease anxiety (Conn 2010; DeBoer et al. 2012).

Reductions in anxiety are measurable after only 20 minutes of exercise (Johnsgard 2004).

That’s less time than it takes most medications to begin working!

The reduction in anxiety is greatest for people who have higher levels of anxiety to begin with (Hale and Raglin 2002).

Furthermore, exercise is helpful for people who are sensitive to the symptoms of anxiety, such as increased heart rate or breathlessness, because those sensations are also associated with exercise.

Therefore, exercise can serve as a form of exposure that decreases people’s discomfort about those sensations (Broman-Fulks and Storey 2008).

Generally, exercise results in decreased muscle tension for at least an hour and a half afterward, and reductions in anxiety last from four to six hours (Crocker and Grozelle 1991).

If you consider that 20 minutes of sustained exercise may result in hours of relief from tension and anxiety, the benefits are clear.

In fact, if you anticipate that a particular event or phase of your day may amp up your anxiety, a carefully timed exercise routine may allow you to get through it with less anxiety.

Here’s an example to consider:

A 17 year old is feeling anxious about going to a family reunion with her parents. She has had difficulties with social anxiety for years, because of this, attending a family reunion seemed like a nightmare. She feared feeling trapped.

Her therapist suggested going on a short run if she’s at the reunion and begins to feel panicky. She rolled her eyes at the suggestion.

At the reunion, the teenage girl began to feel panicky. She remembered what her therapist said, and just went on a short run. She “Just wanted to get out of there!”

After running around the neighborhood, she returned to the reunion and was surprised at the relief that she felt.

She enjoyed the reunion and talked with all of her aunts and uncles without anxiety.

Later in therapy, she said, “I really believe that my amygdala thought I had escaped from the danger, and it calmed down!” She was sold on the anxiety-reducing benefits of exercise from that day forward.

Exercise doesn’t just reduce anxiety in the moment or for a few hours afterward. Research shows that following a regular exercise program for at least ten weeks can reduce people’s general level of anxiety (Petruzzello et al. 1991).

Effects of exercise on the brain

The finding that exercise reduces anxiety has led to research into what’s happening in the brain to account for this.

You’re probably familiar with the runner’s high, in which people feel a sense of euphoria after crossing a certain threshold of exertion.

Extended or intense aerobic workouts have been shown to cause the release of endorphins into the bloodstream, and these neurotransmitters have been proposed as the cause of that feeling of exhilaration (Anderson and Shivakumar 2013).

“Endorphin” is a shortened name for “endogenous morphine,” meaning “morphine-like substances produced naturally in the body.”

And as that suggests, these compounds can reduce pain and produce a sense of well-being through their effects on the brain.

Animal studies have helped illuminate what may be happening in the brain after exercise. When laboratory rats are offered free access to a running wheel, they generally make use of it.

What’s more, the level of endorphins in their brains increases and remains elevated for many hours afterward, only returning to typical levels after about 96 hours (Hoffmann 1997).

This finding indicates, once again, that the effects of Exercise on the brain last much longer than duration of the exercise period and may in fact persist for days.

It’s quite possible that when you exercise, you’re raising your endorphin level not just for that day, but for days afterward.

Effects of exercise on the amygdala

Additional research involving rats running on their wheels has shown that exercise changes the chemistry of the amygdala, including altered levels of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine (Dunn et al. 1996) and serotonin (Bequest et al. 2001).

Exercise assists to affect a certain type of serotonin receptor that’s found in large numbers in the lateral nucleus of the amygdala (Greenwood et al. 2012).

Regular exercise seems to make these receptors less active, resulting in a calmer amygdala that’s less likely to create an anxiety response (Heisler et al. 2007).

This calming effect on the amygdala after exercise has been found in humans (Broocks et al. 2001), as well as in mice and rats.

Exercise affects other areas of the brain, as well. In the cortex and hippocampus, we see cell growth and stimulation that produces more positive feelings.

Considering what type of exercise is best for you

The best type of exercise for you, both physically and mentally, is exercise that meets the following four criteria:

  1. You enjoy doing it.
  2. You’ll keep doing it.
  3. It’s moderately intense.
  4. Your doctor approves it.

Try to engage in one to two types of exercise to engage in at least three times per week for 30 minutes each time.

Whatever you choose, remember that getting your heart pumping and your blood flowing has many benefits.

Once you feel the improvement in your mood and reductions in your overall stress level, you should find it easier to stick with an exercise program.

Assessing your exercise quotient

This brief exercise will help you assess your current exercise patterns and strengthen your commitment to a regular, long-term program of physical activity.

Take some time to consider the following questions:

  1. How often do you exercise each week, and how long does each period of exercise last?
  2. Do you feel less anxious after exercise?
  3. If you don’t exercise regularly, would you consider beginning an exercise program to decrease the sympathetic nervous system activation that anxiety creates?
  4. Which type of exercise most appeals to you?

Sleep: An active time for the brain

Most people know how much more refreshed and alert they feel when they’ve gotten a good night’s sleep, but few truly grasp how important sleep is for the brain.

People tend to see sleep as a period in which the brain shuts down, but sleep is actually a very active time for the brain.

Just like your heart or immune system, your brain continues to work while you sleep, and in fact, during certain periods of sleep, it’s more active than at any time when you’re awake (Dement 1992).

As you sleep, your brain is busy making sure that hormones are released, needed neurochemicals are produced, and memories are stored.

Yet getting good, restful sleep is often a challenge for people who struggle with anxiety. When anxiety interferes with sleep, it’s due to the influence of the amygdala.

By promoting activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the amygdala can keep you in an alert state that prevents you from cycling down into deep sleep.

Worries produced in the cortex can compound the problem by exposing you to distressing thoughts that contribute to the amygdala’s activation of the SNS.

Worse, if you don’t take steps to ensure that you get good sleep, you run the risk of making anxiety even worse, since a lack of sleep can make the amygdala prone to more anxious responding.

Mini assessment on whether sleep difficulties are an issue for you

To help you determine whether you have sleep problems, read through the statements below and check any that are true for you:

1. I’m often restless and find it difficult to fall asleep when I go to bed.

2. I’ve used medications or alcohol to help me sleep.

3. I need complete silence to sleep. Any noise will prevent me from relaxing.

4. It often takes me more than 20 minutes to fall asleep.

5. I often feel drowsy, fall asleep, or nap during the day.

6. I don’t go to bed or wake up at a consistent time.

7. I awaken too early and can’t get back to sleep.

8. I don’t sleep soundly. I just can’t relax.

9. When I get out of bed in the morning, I don’t feel rested.

10. I dread trying to sleep at night.

11. I depend on caffeine to get me through the day.

The more of these statements you check, the more likely it is that you have sleep debt.

Sleep debt occurs when people haven’t been getting as much sleep as they need and the hours of missed sleep start accumulating.

Most adults need between seven and nine (I need 8-9 hours) hours of sleep per night. Each night you miss an hour or so of sleep, your debt grows.

So even if you get enough sleep on a given night, you may still feel sleepy or irritable the next day as a result of an accumulated sleep debt.

If you’re struggling with sleep, then you could definitely benefit from working with a professional who specializes in it.

If you identify anxiety being the main culprit of sleep debt, then working with a professional mental health counselor, like myself, who specializes in treating anxiety would be beneficial.

Lack of sleep and the amygdala

Poor sleep has detrimental effects on the human brain. People who don’t get enough sleep have difficulty concentrating, problems with memory, and poorer health in general

In particular, we’ve been looking at how sleep impacts the amygdala. Studies have shown that the amygdala reacts more negatively to a lack of sleep than other parts of the brain.

In one study (Yoo et al. 2007), a group of people was kept from sleeping for one night, another group was allowed to sleep normally.

Then, at about 5:00 PM, all were brought into the laboratory and shown a variety of images, both positive and negative, while scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging to observe how their amygdalas reacted.

The sleep-deprived people, who had gone approximately 35 hours without sleep, had about 60 percent more amygdala activation in response to negative images (Yoot et al. 2007).

So be aware that if you’re going without sleep, you’re making it more likely that your amygdala will be reactive and cause you to experience anxiety or other emotional reactions, such as anger and irritability.

When we sleep, we go through different stages of sleep in a particular pattern. We cycle through these different stages in a repetitive manner, with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep typically occurring several times over the course of the night.

REM sleep is the stage of sleep during which dreaming occurs. It’s also a time when memories are consolidated and neurotransmitters are replenished.

Researchers have found that lower reactivity in the amygdala is associated with getting more REM sleep (van der Helm et al. 2011).

This suggests that getting good sleep, especially sufficient REM sleep, can help calm the amygdala.

As you work on getting adequate sleep, it’s important to understand when REM sleep occurs. REM sleep occurs later in the sleep cycle, and phases of REM sleep become more frequent at the end of the overall sleep period.

Many people don’t realize that a long period of sleep is necessary for getting into these stages of REM sleep.

Therefore, four hours of sleep followed by an hour of wakefulness and then another four hours of sleep isn’t equal to eight hours of sleep.

When you return to sleep after being awake for even just half an hour, the sleep cycle starts over from the beginning, so it will take many more hours to get through an entire sleep period.

It isn’t like returning to watching a movie where you left off. It’s like having to go through the whole movie again from the beginning.

How about that?

Coping with sleep difficulties

After reading all of this information about sleep, you may be thinking, “I want to get good sleep, but it isn’t easy!”

Of course, our 24 hour culture, with media, shopping, and restaurants available at all hours, can keep us from getting sufficient sleep on a regular basis.

Certain stages of life also make one vulnerable to sleep deprivation, including the college years or the first months of parenthood.

Many people treat sleep as a luxury that can be disregarded when necessary.

To calm anxiety, you need to resist influences that interfere with sleep. However, anxiety itself often impairs people’s ability to sleep, with difficulty falling asleep or early awakening both being quite common.

When coping with these difficulties, it’s useful to know which approaches will help and which will actually worsen the problem.

The best approach to improving sleep is to take a careful look at your sleep-related routines to make sure that they’re healthy.

The following sleeping practices can really assist you in achieving a good night’s sleep:

1. Before you go to bed, practice a routine set of relaxing rituals.

2. Eliminate light stimulation for at least an hour before bed.

3. Exercise during the day.

4. Establish a consistent bedtime and waking time.

5. Avoid napping.

6. Near bedtime, replace activating thoughts with relaxing ones.

7. If worries haunt you at bedtime, schedule a worry time during the day. “Worry time” is a small block of time that you set aside to write down all of your worries. You can set a timer for 10 minutes, if you’d like.

8. Ensure that your sleeping environment is conductive to sleep.

9. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods in the late afternoon and evening.

10. Use relaxing breathing techniques to prepare for sleep.

11. If you can’t fall asleep after 30 minutes in bed, get up and do something relaxing. No screens. Read or do a puzzle.

12. Use your bed primarily for sleep.

13. Avoid using sleep aids.

If you found these tips helpful, please give this a “like” at the bottom of the article, it helps other people find them. Sharing this article will also help.

Clearly, lifestyle habits can have a strong influence on your amygdala. If you engage in regular aerobic exercise, especially exercise that uses large muscle groups, the positive effects on both your amygdala and your cortex can help improve your mood.

Exercise also increases neuroplasticity, making both your amygdala and your cortex more responsive to the rewiring you’re attempting to achieve (more manageable levels of anxiety).

In addition, ensuring that you’re getting sufficient, good quality sleep can calm the amygdala and make it less reactive to whatever you experience in your daily life, processing the stresses you experience in a more calming way.

Again, if you’ve found this info interesting and helpful, please give it a thumbs up!


Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic and worry. By Catherine M. Pittman, PhD and Elizabeth M. Karle, MLIS

Learning from Catherine Pittman

Personally, I’ve taken a continuing education course taught by Catherine Pittman. She covered a ton of fantastic information and research on rewiring your anxious brain.

She is a great presenter; great at passing along her expertise. I’ve been applying what she presented and have done my best passing it on to my clients.

Are you interested in working with me?

Then, watch this video below!

Related reads

4 FAQ about Shannon’s Counseling Services

Self-Care Assessment – See where you’re at

Dear Active and Runner Moms Who Experience “Mom Guilt”

The Anxious Brain, Worry Time, Disempowering Thoughts, and Anxiety Management

Managing Anxiety and Deciding with Uncertainty

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