Exercise & Anxiety - Survival Pack

Exercise & Anxiety - Survival Pack

How Exercise May Tame Anxiety

Exercise and breathing practices can help tame your anxiety. According to Joni E. Johnston and her colleague (2014), "physical activity cannot cure clinical levels of anxiety or depression, but it can provide psychological and physical benefits that alleviate symptoms and can be an important part of the recovery process".

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is not a sign of weakness. It is a feeling of worry, nervousness, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. 


Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety can show up in many ways: physically, emotionally, cognitively, and/or behaviourally. 

Some of the physical symptoms of anxiety include the following:

  • Nausea or indigestion ("butterflies" in the stomach)
  • Sweating, especially sweaty palms, forehead, or underarms
  • Shortness of breath
  • Racing pulse or a feeling like your heart is pounding
  • Trouble swallowing or feelings of choking
  • Dizziness or headache
  • Chills or hot flashes
  • Muscle tension
  • Skin changes ("goose bumps")
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Difficulty sleeping



Some of the emotional symptoms of anxiety include the following:

  • Fear
  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • The sense that something bad is about to happen



Some of the cognitive symptoms of anxiety include the following:

  • Thinking about fearful situations over and over without resolving anything
  • Focusing too much on tiny details, not seeing the big picture
  • Overestimating the real danger of everyday activities or situations
  • Doubting our ability to cope
  • Worrying that any physical symptom is either the beginning of an anxiety attack or a sign of a life-threatening illness
  • Overestimating the likelihood of a negative outcome
  • Thinking excessively about the possibility of failure or of drawing negative attention




Some of the behavioral symptoms of anxiety include the following:

  • Avoiding situations that have made us anxious in the past
  • Freezing up
  • Avoiding situations that we are afraid might make us anxious
  • Refusing to try new things
  • Procrastinating-putting things off for later
  • Using drugs or alcohol to try to cope


Ask yourself these questions to determine if your anxiety has crossed the line.

  • Does your anxiety cause you to avoid specific places, events, objects, or situations?
  • Are these place, events, objects, or situations that other people don't seem to be afraid of or consider relatively harmless?
  • Does your anxiety interfere with your ability to work?
  • Does your anxiety cause problems in your relationships with other people - or prevent you from having relationships at all?
  • Does you anxiety keep you from taking care of your responsibilities around the home?
  • Does your anxiety cause you discomfort or distress on a regular basis?
  • Do you frequently feel irritable?
  • Do other people always tell you that you always look stressed out?
  • Do you often have trouble falling or staying asleep?
  • Do you worry about the same things over and over ?
  • Do you sometimes feel that your thoughts are out of control?


Case Study of Exercise & Anxiety

The case study of Ann proves the effectiveness of exercise in managing mental health illnesses such as anxiety. Ann was diagnosed with panic disorder and depression and she often isolated herself, stayed at home and was unable to work or enjoy social outings. She has tried antidepressants but she still feels exhausted after she finally returned to work. Her doctor insisted she started working out and she started slowly walking and gradually increasing her workout routine. She also found a walking buddy. Within three weeks, her energy level improved. She discontinued her medication 14 months later and upped her exercise routine a bit.

Getting Help from Exercise & Breathing

  Joni E. Johnston and her colleague (2014) in their book, Overcoming Anxiety, found that when you're stressed, your breathing tends to become shallow and rapid. Very rapid breathing can cause you to feel lightheaded and give you tingling sensations in your arms and legs. How you're breathing also influences how you feel. 

  They also explained the benefits of exercise in alleviating the symptoms of anxiety. They found that exercise seems to have a number of direct and indirect psychological and emotional benefits when you have depression or anxiety. These include the following:

  • Confidence (Engaging in physical activity offers a sense of accomplishment)
  • Distraction (Distracts from dwelling on problems)
  • Interactions (Creates opportunities to interact with others)
  • Healthy coping (Doing something beneficial to manage depression or anxiety is a positive coping strategy)

Motivation to Exercise

  • Get your doctor's advice 
  • Go with the natural flow (Start with things you like to do)
  • Do an attitude adjustment (Keep track of the immediate benefits exercise, such as a calmer state of mind and better sleep)

Consider some of these exercises:

  • Aerobic dance
  • Jumping rope
  • Stair climbing/steppers
  • Ski machine/elliptical
  • Aerobics/water aerobics classes
  • Working around the house
  • Bicycling
  • Skating
  • Fitness walking
  • Running
  • Swimming
  • Gardening
  • Mowing

Quick Breathing Lesson

  • Lie down on your back
  • Place your hands on your stomach, and loosely interlock your fingers
  • As you breathe in, your stomach should rise and your fingers become separated
  • If you can, breathe through your nose and out through your mouth
  • When you've gotten the breathing down, capitalize on your physical calm using your mind.
  • You might try mentally repeating My toes are relaxed; I can feel my toes relax. My calves are relaxed; I can feel my calves relax and working your way up through the rest of your body.

The more you practice deep breathing when you've already relaxed, the easier it will be to achieve when you're under pressure.

If you live with anxiety, you are not alone. If you are in Canada, you can checkout the number of mental health resources available to you when you click on these links:


General Mental Health Tips:

Find your CMHA: https://cmha.ca/find-your-cmha

BounceBack: https://bouncebackontario.ca/
A free, guided self-help program that’s effective in helping people aged 15 and up who are experiencing mild-to-moderate anxiety or depression, or may be feeling low, stressed, worried, irritable or angry.

ConnexOntario: 1-866 -531-2600 or www.connexontario.ca 
Free and confidential health services information for people experiencing problems with alcohol and drugs, mental health and/or gambling. Available 24/7.

Canada Suicide Prevention Service: 1-833-456-4566 or www.crisisservicescanada.ca/en/
Offers 24/7/365 bilingual support to people in Canada who have concerns about suicide. Phone line available 24/7.

Distress and Crisis Ontario: http://www.dcontario.org/
Distress Centres (DC’s) across Ontario offer support and a variety of services to their communities. At a DC you can find a listening ear for lonely, depressed, and/or suicidal people, usually 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The website also offers a chat function.

Good2Talk Helpline: 1-866-925-5454 or text GOOD2TALKON to 686868
Ontario’s 24/7 helpline for postsecondary students.

Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 or text CONNECT to 686868
Youth mental health support available 24/7.

Children’s Mental Health Ontario Centres: cmho.org/findhelp/
100 member organizations operating in every region in Ontario, providing treatment and support to children, youth, and families. Free. No referral required.

Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310
Offers immediate mental health counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous peoples across Canada. Phone and chat counselling is available in English, French, Cree, Ojibway and Inuktitut.

National Indian Residential School Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
Offers support to former residential school students and those affected. Available 24 hours.

Talk4healing (for Indigenous women): 1-855-554-4325

LGBT Youthline Ontario: 647-694-4275 + https://www.youthline.ca/ (chat, text and email currently available)
Ontario-wide peer-support for lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirited, queer and questioning young people.

Assaulted Women’s Helpline: 

  • TOLL-FREE: 1-866-863-0511
  • TOLL FREE TTY: 1-866-863-7868
  • #SAFE (#7233) on your Bell, Rogers, Fido or Telus Mobile

24-hour telephone and TTY crisis line for all women in Ontario who have experienced any form of abuse.

Seniors Safety Line: 1-866-299-1011
Provided by Elder Abuse Ontario, the Seniors Safety Line provides contact and referral information for local agencies across the province that can assist in cases of elder abuse.

Ontario Caregiver Helpline: 1-833-416-2273 + live chat also available at https://ontariocaregiver.ca/
Provides caregivers with a one-stop resource for information and support.

Lumino Health: Stress and Anxiety Explorer
Information and tools from Lumino Health and mental health partners.


Government of Ontario website: https://covid-19.ontario.ca/
For up-to-date information on COVID-19 in Ontario.

COVID-19 self-assessment tool: https://covid-19.ontario.ca/self-assessment/#q0
To help determine how to seek further care.


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