Can Working Out Make Your Anxiety Worse? Experts Weigh In
Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction.
If you Google "anxiety cures" (or treatments, or remedies), exercise will come up in about 98.9 percent of the top results—and for good reason. Exercise has as many, or more, psychological benefits as it does physical, making it a go-to natural option for anyone looking to mitigate their stress and anxiety.
That said, as is the case with most solutions, exercise doesn't work for everyone. In some cases, working out can actually trigger or intensify anxiety—which is, we assume, the opposite of what we all want.
This isn't to say that everyone should avoid exercising because it may or may not trigger their anxiety. On the contrary, if you find that exercise reduces all your stress and anxiety symptoms, keep on keeping on. But if you feel like your anxiety increases as the result of a workout, you deserve expert advice on how to handle it and find ways around it.
Of course, everyone is different (surprise!), which makes this topic a bit tricky. A workout that stokes one person's anxiety could be totally fine for another, and some people with anxiety can do any type of workout and feel fine. It's probably going to take some trial and error on your end, but there are some workouts that are more likely to increase our anxiety—ones that anxious folks may want to avoid.
To get some answers, we asked holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, M.D., and trained gynecologist and obstetrician Anna Cabeca, D.O., to weigh in.
Can exercise make anxiety worse?
Both Vora and Cabeca agree that yes, exercise can make anxiety worse for some people. You may be asking yourself why. Some exercise can trigger a stress response in the body, meaning it increases our cortisol levels, which can contribute to anxiety.
Again, this will not be the case for everyone, but it is definitely possible, and if it's happening to you, you probably have a few questions like…
Which types of workouts are the worst for anxiety?
As you may have guessed, the answer to this question depends on the person. Vora offers us an easy way to gauge, saying, "Generally if a workout makes you feel stressed or overstimulated, that's probably contributing to your anxiety."
That said, there are specific workouts that tend to increase anxiety—specifically long endurance exercises, like anything super strenuous or rigorous.
"Oftentimes long endurance exercises can trigger anxiety," Cabeca explains. "It can have an effect on cortisol levels, and that can cause an increase in anxiety symptoms by suppressing serotonin production."
So if you're anxiety-prone and routinely do strenuous workouts, it could be worth seeking out other, less grueling options.
Which workouts are the best for anxiety?
As mentioned, any workout can spark anyone's anxiety—it's all about finding what works best for you. But in general, workouts that decrease cortisol are a safe bet.
"The types of workouts that work best for anxiety are ones that reduce cortisol naturally," says Cabeca. "Any exercise that helps your body rebalance without creating too much demand or pull on your other hormones."
An excellent choice for this, she adds, is yoga.
"Yoga in general has a beneficial effect on well-being and on hormonal balance. It reduces cortisol, increases the circulation of our other hormones."
Steady state cardio, like running or going on an elliptical, also have their benefits, she says. In particular, they release a lot of endorphins and increase our overall relaxation. She does, however, favor HIIT over cardio, simply because HIIT provides many other health benefits.
"I recommend HIIT because it produces the best results for the individual," Cabeca says. "It can increase testosterone and growth hormone, which we like—and can also help us sleep."
Our advice? Do what you love.
Cabeca puts it best when she says the best workout to do is the one you like—because at the end of the day, if you like it, it's less likely to give you anxiety.
And if you're someone who often experiences anxiety after exercise, please know that you're not alone and you have options. There's an enjoyable, anxiety-crushing workout out there for everyone—and finding an activity you love is a great place to start.
"My advice for people who are prone to anxiety but still want to reap the benefits of exercise is to always choose an exercise you enjoy," Cabeca says. "Anything from strength training to long walks, to yoga or boxing. Find the exercise that you get joy from doing. Period."
Ray Bass is the associate movement and wellness editor at mindbodygreen and a NASM-Certified Personal Trainer. She holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Pennsylvania, with honors in nonfiction. A runner, yogi, boxer, and cycling devotee, Bass searches for the hardest workouts in New York (and the best ways to recover from them). She's debunked myths about protein, posture, and the plant-based diet, and has covered everything from the best yoga poses for chronic pain to the future of fitness, recovery, and America's obsession with the Whole30 diet.