Science writer Kirsten Weir with The American Psychological Association has covered the research of SMU psychologist Dr. Jasper Smits. The December 2011 article, The Exercise Effect, quotes Smits, an associate professor of psychology, on his research finding that high levels of physical activity can buffer against panic for those who are at risk.
People with an intense fear of the nausea, racing heart, dizziness, stomachaches and shortness of breath that accompany panic — known as “high anxiety sensitivity” — reacted with less anxiety to the study’s panic-inducing stressor if they had been engaging in high levels of physical activity.
By Kirsten Weir
American Psychological Association
… Researchers have also explored exercise as a tool for treating — and perhaps preventing — anxiety. When we’re spooked or threatened, our nervous systems jump into action, setting off a cascade of reactions such as sweating, dizziness, and a racing heart. People with heightened sensitivity to anxiety respond to those sensations with fear. They’re also more likely to develop panic disorder down the road, says Jasper Smits, PhD, Co-Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and co-author, with Otto, of the 2011 book “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety: Proven Strategies for Overcoming Depression and Enhancing Well-being.”
Smits and Otto reasoned that regular workouts might help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when they experience those fight-or-flight sensations. After all, the body produces many of the same physical reactions — heavy perspiration, increased heart rate — in response to exercise. They tested their theory among 60 volunteers with heightened sensitivity to anxiety. Subjects who participated in a two-week exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared with a control group (Depression and Anxiety, 2008). “Exercise in many ways is like exposure treatment,” says Smits. “People learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.”
In another study, Smits and his colleagues asked volunteers with varying levels of anxiety sensitivity to undergo a carbon-dioxide challenge test, in which they breathed CO2-enriched air. The test often triggers the same symptoms one might experience during a panic attack: increased heart and respiratory rates, dry mouth and dizziness. Unsurprisingly, people with high anxiety sensitivity were more likely to panic in response to the test. But Smits discovered that people with high anxiety sensitivity who also reported high activity levels were less likely to panic than subjects who exercised infrequently (Psychosomatic Medicine, 2011). The findings suggest that physical exercise could help to ward off panic attacks. “Activity may be especially important for people at risk of developing anxiety disorder,” he says.
Smits is now investigating exercise for smoking cessation. The work builds on previous research by Bess Marcus, PhD, a psychology researcher now at the University of California San Diego, who found that vigorous exercise helped women quit smoking when it was combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy (Archives of Internal Medicine, 1999). However, a more recent study by Marcus found that the effect on smoking cessation was more limited when women engaged in only moderate exercise (Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 2005).
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