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The Benefits of Exercise after a Panic Attack

written by: Dr. Kristie Leong • edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick • updated: 9/10/2010

The symptoms of panic attack can be a challenge to deal with - and the medications used to treat them often have side effects. Can exercise help panic attacks - naturally?

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    Exercise and Panic Attacks

    Does exercise help panic attacks? People who deal with anxiety and panic attacks constantly look for ways to reduce the frequency and severity of their symptoms. Although medications help, they also have side effects, which some panic attack sufferers want to avoid. Could exercise offer a drug-free way to reign in the symptoms of anxiety, worry, and panic that people with panic disorder experience?

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    Can Exercise Help Panic Attacks?

    Many anxious people feel more relaxed after a workout – and some say it reduces worry and stress and gives them a sense of well-being. Is the same true for people with panic attacks?

    There’s a chemical called CCK-4 that induces panic attacks in normal individuals who don’t have panic disorder. Researchers in Berlin, Germany used this chemical to test the effects of exercise on the symptoms of panic attack.

    To do this, they administered CCK-4 to fifteen young, healthy adults – to induce a panic attack. Prior to getting the CCK-4, the participants walked for thirty minutes on a treadmill. After the walk, their level of anxiety was measured using a panic inventory scale. The subjects then rested before receiving a second dose of CCK-4. Again, their degree of panic and anxiety was assessed.

    The results? Twelve participants who received CCK-4 experienced symptoms of panic after resting, but only half that number had panic attack symptoms after walking on the treadmill for thirty minutes. The treadmill walk seemed to protect some individuals against panic in this small study.

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    Why Does Exercise Help Panic Attacks?

    No one knows for sure, but there are some theories as to how exercise prevents panic attacks. According to one study, people with panic attacks produce and accumulate excessive amounts of lactic acid in their brain. The brains of people with panic disorder seem to be hypersensitive to acidity - to the point that excessive amounts of acid can trigger a panic attack.

    How does exercise help panic attacks? Exercising, especially intense exercise causes lactic acid to be produced by the hard-working muscles. Experts believe this constant exposure to lactic acid through exercise trains the body to deal more efficiently with lactic acid - so less accumulates in the brain and triggers panic.

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    Another Way Exercise Helps Panic Attacks

    Another way exercise may help panic attack sufferers is by promoting release of “feel good" chemicals called endorphins. These natural chemicals are one explanation for the “runner’s high" that some runners experience when they exercise. Endorphins have an anxiety-reducing, calming effect that may protect against panic attacks – even though the effect is short-lived. There’s also the possibility that exercise alters levels of other neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, which play a role in panic attack symptoms.

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    Exercise for Panic Attacks: Is It a Good Prescription?

    Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how much, how long, or how intense exercise needs to be to reduce panic attacks – and whether it helps all panic attack sufferers. It’s also not clear what type is best, although aerobic exercise seems to be at least somewhat beneficial according to studies. It’s easy to surmise that yoga might also have benefits for panic attack sufferers because of its calming effect, but little research has been done in this area.

    The bottom line? Aerobic exercise seems to offer the greatest benefits for panic attack sufferers. Try adding a daily jog or a spin on the treadmill to your daily routine – and keep a diary of your panic and anxiety symptoms to see if it makes a difference. If it does, keep doing it.

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    References

    (2005) Am J Psychiatry 162, 2376.

    Scientific American website. "Panic Attacks as a Problem of pH"