Like many people, I have struggled with anxiety for as long as I remember. Six years ago, I made serious changes in how I managed my anxiety through improving my fitness and nutrition. This change was prompted after the biggest panic attack of my life. I decided after this intense panic attack that I no longer wanted to settle for a life of mere survival.
During this time in my life, I was in school and my grades were good and things were fairly calm overall, which is how I knew the anxiety was generalized. This is the type of chronic anxiety that is not necessarily linked to any particular issues or trauma, rather, it is the type of daily anxiety that can make everything seem insurmountable.
Generalized anxiety can trick you into thinking you are not good enough, no matter how hard you try, that you will never succeed and it can instill a sense of constant fear. This can make even the most resilient people doubt themselves. My family doctor had been recommending this for a very long time. While I was undergoing CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) at the time, my family doctor insisted on the addition of a daily walk into my routine.
After the insistence of my doctor for months, I finally listened. Now, I view walking as a form of active meditation, as it is very relaxing. Not only is walking relaxing, but it is also a form of emotional processing. I find that walking or exercise, in general, is a form of putting that anxious energy to good use.
Anxiety can hurt mental clarity in that it can create mental fog. Studies have shown that exercise does more than help, it significantly improves anxiety and mental wellness. Walking can also double up as a means to clear mental fog.
Of course, “exercise improves one’s self-esteem, and a sense of wellbeing…” (Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety). The improvement of self-esteem through physical activity stems from the sense of accomplishment for me. To me, any form of exercise is an act of self-love, self-care, and self-respect. When you look after your body, it sends the message that you love yourself, regardless of your anxiety or other things that might be perceived as a flaw.
After a while of practicing an exercise ritual, I fell in love with lifting weights. What is very interesting is that the higher my anxiety, the better my workouts, which means that the practice of exercise can be viewed as a mechanism to transform anxiety into fuel.
Feeling my muscles growing, even when I did not always feel like lifting, made me understand the importance of an athletic mindset. An athletic mindset, for me, is defined as pushing through challenges, no matter what. There are more benefits to facing challenges head-on, and this mentality has stayed with me in my most anxious moments. The athletic mindset is how I get through anxiety phases much faster daily and has boosted my confidence like nothing else. Exercise is not all physical, if you push through difficult repetitions, you realize you can also handle your mental health much better, all due to the confidence it gives.
I now believe that fitness is the core of me maintaining myself, it is a basic requirement for me functioning at my best or even, functioning at all.
Concerning the nutrition side of handling anxiety, there is a lot to be said on this topic. One of the strategies is to eat more foods that promote anti-inflammation and ensuring proper supplementation. This does not undercut the importance of soul food and fun foods; however, a focus on a diet that is nutrient-dense, low in high-saturated heart-unhealthy fats, and low on highly processed items is ideal for the gut.
When I first started making changes, I merely added more unprocessed whole foods into my diet. I also made simple yet manageable swaps, and gradually increased to bigger changes. One of the most significant changes I made when I was first starting was to switch from white rice (processed) to brown rice (nutrient-dense) and from white bread (processed) to whole wheat bread (nutrient-dense). Although white flour is faster digesting and serves its purpose sometimes, these swaps made a difference and they still do.
How exactly does the gut affect the brain?
The gut microbiome is “is defined as all microorganisms in the human body and their respective genetic material. The microbiota is defined as all microorganisms in a particular location, such as the GI tract or skin” (Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis).
The relationship between gut microbiota and diet can affect the restoration of gut bacterial composition, even when diet changes are temporary. This shows how powerful a well-designed diet is.
The same study shows that inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract increases anxiety and depression, which is precisely why an anti-inflammatory and nutrient-dense diet is so key, especially with people who have existing anxious tendencies or full-on anxiety. To better illustrate the gut-brain axis, in essence, either dysregulation or hyperactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal is “one of the most reliable biological readouts in major depression and anxiety” (Gut microbiota’s effect on mental health: The gut-brain axis).
When nutrition is cared for, the gut-brain axis improves and works at its peak capacity. There is no reason not to pay attention to nutrition.
Eating with the awareness of how the food one consumes affects the gut microbiome can lead to a healthier gut, which can lead to a healthier and more optimally functioning mind.
This is not a recommendation on whether or not various therapies or medications are the right or wrong way to proceed for anxiety management; however, it is a personal story about how fitness and nutrition enhanced my ability to cope with it. Fitness and nutrition are being advertised as cures for anxiety; however, for me, they help tremendously.
In short, regulating my mind through exercise and taking care of my gut health through eating well has tremendously helped with my anxiety and it still does. I want to share this story because I want others to feel as good as I do now that I have taken control of my fitness and nutrition. I hope that you can take some inspiration from this and feel more empowered knowing there are many tools at your disposal. Basic exercise and diet changes can go a long way and I am grateful for the way that those small changes years ago have now become a lifestyle.