The Simple Exercise That Could Help Calm Anxiety, According To Science

Photo: Leah Flores

According to the CDC, one out of every five Americans struggles with mental illness. But in reality, that number is likely much higher. Here at mindbodygreen, we know that a mental health struggle—whether it be anxiety, depression, PTSD, panic attacks, or a diagnosis like bipolar disorder—can teach us more about life, health, and ourselves than we ever thought possible. So in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re sharing personal stories and lessons from those who have been there. Together, we’ll continue to add to the honest and open conversation about mental health.

Journalist and health expert Sarah Wilson has long struggled with anxiety. At one point, it was so crippling that she went days at a time without sleeping or leaving her home. Her new book, First We Make the Beast Beautiful: A New Journey Through Anxiety, is a powerful look into her lifelong journey with the mental illness, filled with tools to help anyone going through something similar.

When Sarah stopped by the mindbodygreen podcast earlier this month, she shared some of the most transformative lessons she took away from her writing and research (you can tune in to her full episode here!). One of the findings she keeps going back to again and again? When you're anxious, walking is one of the easiest ways to find some peace.

Here, Sarah dives into the fascinating research behind this simple, effective, and totally free tool. Try walking without a destination more often and see what it clears up for you.

The science behind why walking is so calming.

The part of the brain that controls anxiety—the amygdala—is one of the oldest, most primitive parts of the brain. (It's also the part that controls decision making, so the two are intertwined. This is why making decisions when you're anxious is almost impossible, and making too many decisions can actually make us anxious.) This "anxious" part of our brain is really simple. It's a mono-tasker that can do only one thing at a time. And walking has been shown to actually shut down the anxious mechanism, so while we're walking, the anxious part of our brain can shut off a bit.

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How does walking help us think more clearly?

When we're walking, we're more likely to have discerning thoughts. That's why you hear about people doing walking meetings at work to help them think better.

I think the cause of a lot of the anxiety we see today is that life now goes at a pace that is not conducive to discerning thought. Our thoughts build up and up and up, and we have no time to work out how we actually feel. It's an information overload. Walking gets us in exactly the right pace and rhythm to think well.

Is all walking created equal?

Walking in nature amps up its benefits, according to science. The Japanese are obsessed with this, and they have popularized the idea of forest bathing. A lot of studies out of Japan have shown that trees and plants emit aerosols that can calm our mind and have a huge impact on human biology.

Another way to amp up your walk is to go to expansive places that bring on a sense of awe. Our oxytocin levels increase when we're in expansive places—ones that make us go, "Oh my god, check out that view." Oxytocin is the love connection hormone. I think that is part of the reason we want to share our photos of nature: because we want to use them to connect with others.

But even if you don't live near green, expansive space, I advocate for just putting on your shoes and getting out there. Because when you're anxious, the idea of having to go out and find some incredible, perfect park with the best sunset ever and beautiful trees is a bridge too far.

Keep it simple: Tie up your shoes and just walk out of the house for 20 minutes. Just walk.

Here are 20 more natural anxiety remedies that might just change your life.

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