A lot of us know from experience that exercise is a great stress buster. Elizabeth Gould (Professor of Psychology at Princeton) and her associates have clarified the process. Their research was published in the March issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
Their experiments were performed on mice. The mice were divided into 2 groups:
- Sedentary group: no running wheel
- Active group: free access to a running wheel (mice run about 4 km per day when given a running wheel!)
Six weeks later the mice were exposed to a stressor (cold water). The sedentary group showed an increase in ‘immediate early genes’ (short-lived genes that turn on rapidly when neurons fire). Whereas the active group showed no presence of these genes suggesting no neuronal excitation secondary to the stressor. In the active group, inhibitory neurons were more active and more gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) was released in the brain. GABA is a neurotransmitter that calms down neural excitement.
Gould concluded that “the results suggest that running improves anxiety regulation by engaging local inhibitory mechanisms in the ventral hippocampus”. In layman’s terms, this means that exercise prevents stress and anxiety by suppressing brain agitation.
It has been known for ages that meditation can decrease anxiety but until now the brain regions involved in the process have remained a mystery. Fadel Zeidan from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has recently shed some light on the process. They selected 15 healthy volunteers with no history of meditation or anxiety disorders. The volunteers took four 20 min classes to learn mindfulness meditation. They were taught to focus on breathing and body sensations and non-judgementally assess distracting thoughts and emotions. Anxiety reports and MRI scans were taken before and after the meditation training course. The majority of the subjects displayed a decrease in anxiety of around 40% following meditation. During meditation, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (controls worrying) and anterior cingulate cortex (controls thinking and emotion) were found to be more active and led to decreased anxiety.
Zeidan commented, “Mindfulness is premised on sustaining attention in the present moment and controlling the way we react to daily thoughts and feelings. Interestingly, the present findings reveal that the brain regions associated with meditation-related anxiety relief are remarkably consistent with the principles of being mindful.” In short, if we focus on our breathing and body sensations in the present, it inhibits our ability to worry about imaginary problems in the future.
Something interesting happened last week whilst I was treating a client. He was referred to me a few weeks back because of hip pain. About 18 months ago a car knocked him off his bicycle and he landed on his right side, after which he immediately noticed right hip pain.
He has been gradually improving with treatment…so far nothing remarkable but during our last session he mentioned that the travel anxiety he had experienced (I didn’t know he had anxiety) since the accident had also been getting better. He said that the anxiety was lessening as the pain decreased…wow!
What could explain the connection between the hip pain and the travel anxiety? Well, to answer that we need to go back in time to a famous psychological experiment…Pavlov’s dogs…ring any bells? In his experiment, Pavlov rang a bell before feeding dogs. After a while he noticed that the dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell…without the presence of food! The dogs had associated the sound of the bell with food. This process is called conditioning. It takes a while to establish itself and dissociating the bell from food can extinguish it i.e. if you stop feeding the dogs after ringing the bell, they’ll soon stop salivating when they hear it. A similar phenomenon can take place almost instantly during significant emotional events. Sights, sounds, smells and others sensations can unconsciously become associated with the event. Emotionally traumatic experiences can create phobias…amongst other things. A phobia is an irrational fear of an object or situation.
In this case the fear or anxiety is linked to the client seeing cyclists among circulating vehicles. Presumably, in these circumstances, the hip pain has also become a trigger for the emotional response. Therefore, it’s no longer surprising that as the pain has decreased with treatment, so has the emotional response to cyclists.
Fascinating isn’t it? The complexity and beauty of the mind-body connection never ceases to amaze!