How to deal with anxiety through exercise? Willow Smith shares her story

Health, according to the World Health Organization, is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity”.[1] A variety of definitions have been used for different purposes over time. Health can be promoted by encouraging healthful activities, such as regular physical exercise and adequate sleep,[2] and by reducing or avoiding unhealthful activities or situations, such as smoking or excessive stress. Some factors affecting health are due to individual choices, such as whether to engage in a high-risk behavior, while others are due to structural causes, such as whether the society is arranged in a way that makes it easier or harder for people to get necessary healthcare services. Still other factors are beyond both individual and group choices, such as genetic disorders.

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Will Smith’s daughter Willow Smith has confessed to having anxiety issues, and how exercise has helped her keep her mental health in check.

Mental health has been brushed under the carpet for as long as we can remember, but the pandemic has certainly opened up a can of worms. And for good reason! Whether it’s film stars, musicians, sportspersons, or entrepreneurs, people from all walks of life have shared their mental health struggles that have particularly exacerbated during Covid-19. The recent one is pop star Willow Smith, who is Hollywood actor Will Smith’s daughter.

The very first time she suffered from anxiety attacks was in 2010 after her hit single ‘Whip My Hair’. She was heavily overwhelmed by the situation.

Here’s what Willow said, “That was crazy. I was brainwashed into thinking, ‘No, you’re being a brat, suck it up. Then I grew up, and I realized it was something that needed to be dealt with.”

During the pandemic, Willow turned to exercise to take care of her mental health. She has also confessed to being so obsessed that she would end up physically exerting herself, in order to keep her anxiety in check.

“I became a little obsessive with physical exertion, I didn’t allow myself to feel (anxiety), I just wanted to run it out. Sometimes the body is so intelligent,” she told The Independent.

But does exercise really help? Well, it’s time to find out more.

How can exercise help to deal with anxiety?

A recent study that was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders revealed that both moderate and strenuous exercise can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety.

mental health
Running works well for both our physical and mental health. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

The study included 286 patients who had anxiety syndrome. Half of them had lived with anxiety for almost a decade, and their average age was 39 years. 70 percent of these participants were women. They were assigned to group exercise sessions for 12 weeks.

At the end of 12 weeks, their anxiety symptoms had lowered, even when they suffered from a chronic condition. Most of the participants went from moderate-to-high levels of anxiety to low anxiety levels.

Previous studies of physical exercise in depression have pointed to improvements in symptoms. However, a clear picture is still lacking when it comes to understanding how people with anxiety are affected by exercise.

What are some other ways to deal with anxiety?

Preeta Ganguli, trauma-informed therapist, and wellness consultant shares some useful tips with HealthShots.

1. Grounding is a powerful tool. Using breathwork, meditation, or sensory exercises to ground oneself helps the body to regulate and feel calm again. The roots visual meditation, square breathing, and 54321 sensory exercises are some examples.

Mental health
Make meditation a part of your daily life. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

2. “Check in where you feel the anxiety coming up in your body. Is it in your chest, stomach, breath, or somewhere else? What is the sensation? Ask it what it needs to feel better. Trust the body, it usually knows what it wants and will ask you to take deep breaths, or drink a glass of water, etc,” she adds.

3. Check in to the thoughts and inner dialogues coming up. You may use a thought journal or simply free-write all the thoughts running in your mind. This helps to get things out in the open so we can see, honour, acknowledge and release or integrate the issue. Wait till your body feels calmer and regulated to sit with what you have written or try to identify the root cause of the anxiety.

Everyday practices to keep anxiety in check, according to Ganguli:

1. Identify possible trigger situations and give yourself extra time and preparation for those.

2. Avoid caffeine or other substances that may aggravate the anxiety, especially in possibly triggering situations.

3. Create a regular self-care practice and build coping mechanisms to help at the time of experiencing anxiety. Practice these even in the absence of anxiety, so they become easier to access when required.

4. Get support from family members/ friends/ peers and let them know beforehand what you need at the time of experiencing anxiety, so they can support you as well.

5. Seek professional support if it feels like a lot and is affecting your life significantly.

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