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Exercise reorganizes the brain to be more resilient to stress

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Physical activity reorganizes the brain so that its response to stress is reduced and anxiety is less likely to interfere with normal brain function, according to a research team based at Princeton University.

The researchers report in the Journal of Neuroscience that when mice allowed to exercise regularly experienced a stressor — exposure to cold water — their brains exhibited a spike in the activity of neurons that shut off excitement in the ventral hippocampus, a brain region shown to regulate anxiety.




The abstract to the study is here (full text behind paywall) but there's an accessible article about it here



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I've been very active my whole life. I did cross-country and basketball, then I became a competitive swimmer and did synchronized swimming as well. Then I became an avid cyclist. I've always strength-trained since I was a kid.

I've almost managed to get dx'd with MDD. I managed to become heavily traumatized despite always being active. It is no panacea to stress. So... exercise isn't everything. I primarily credit it for giving me a reason to leave the house, as well as the drive and stamina to get up and go even when I felt like shit. The idea of cabin fever is so much worse!

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First, I admit to not having the concentration to read the material on the links...like others I have a history of daily exercise, at least a few of which where "extreme" exercise...rock climbing and mountain cycling for example.


Yet, when situational depression turned to clinical depression and depressions buddies of anxiety->panic->agoraphobia I am less than convinced my active lifestyle influenced how I dealt with stress, or more accurately did not/do not deal with stress, made once iota of difference.


IF my history of physical activity did influence my response to stress---YIPPPPPEEEE!

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Personally, I've been depressed and/or anxious regardless of my exercise level.  And I used to be competitive year-round in 4 sports.  Later, I even spent 2 years running or biking daily while training for black belt exams for a martial art.  At the time, I was confused and had no idea what was happening to me but in hindsight I had an obvious depressive episode at one point and had what I now think were periodic panic attacks.  Maybe being physically in shape helped it to be "less bad"?  I don't know.  Maybe, maybe not.  I'm open to considering the possibility that exercise can help make *certain* MI symptoms, like anxiety, possibly be "less bad" but I disagree with the extreme notion that diet and exercise can totally eliminate symptoms or cure anything.  




Just a few days ago there was an article in the NY Times called "How Exercise Can Calm Anxiety"


..... researchers at Princeton University recently discovered that exercise creates vibrant new brain cells — and then shuts them down when they shouldn’t be in action.



For some time, scientists studying exercise have been puzzled by physical activity’s two seemingly incompatible effects on the brain. On the one hand, exercise is known to prompt the creation of new and very excitable brain cells. At the same time, exercise can induce an overall pattern of calm in certain parts of the brain.


Most of us probably don’t realize that neurons are born with certain predispositions. Some, often the younger ones, are by nature easily excited. They fire with almost any provocation, which is laudable if you wish to speed thinking and memory formation.


But that feature is less desirable during times of everyday stress. If a stressor does not involve a life-or-death decision and require immediate physical action, then having lots of excitable neurons firing all at once can be counterproductive, inducing anxiety.


Studies in animals have shown that physical exercise creates excitable neurons in abundance, especially in the hippocampus, a portion of the brain known to be involved in thinking and emotional responses.



How can an activity simultaneously create ideal neurological conditions for anxiety and leave practitioners with a deep-rooted calm, the Princeton researchers wondered?



They were looking for markers, known as immediate early genes, that indicate a neuron has recently fired.


They found them, in profusion. In both the physically fit and the sedentary mice, large numbers of the excitable cells had fired in response to the cold bath. Emotionally, the animals had become fired up by the stress.


But with the runners, it didn’t last long. Their brains, unlike those of the sedentary animals, showed evidence that the shushing neurons also had been activated in large numbers, releasing GABA, calming the excitable neurons’ activity and presumably keeping unnecessary anxiety at bay.


In effect, the runners’ brains had responded to the relatively minor stress of a cold bath with a quick rush of worry and a concomitant, overarching calm.


Edited by CirclesOfConfusion
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Exercise is a huge part of my recovery and maintenance regime. Although I don't make enough time for it at the moment I am cognisant of just how much it evens my mood and temperament and makes me more resilient to triggers.

I used to hate exercise and I still hate going to the gym - so I don't. If a certain type of exercise doesn't do it for you try something else until you find the right fit. Yoga balances my mind as well as my body and swimming is a great stress-buster. Walking while listening to my ipod in a picturesque park is a great way to unwind.

Edited by nightbutterfly
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Exercise is good for MI but MI can make it more difficult to exercise... a vicious cycle.

^^^ Definitely.  Exactly.


I've found in myself that the activity itself of exercise can be stressful and anxiety-provoking because of how competitive I feel with my former self and former abilities.  The exercise itself is an anxiety trigger.  Running is depressing and pisses me off now because it used to feel so effortless and freeing to whiz around on strong legs.  Even walking briskly makes me acutely aware of body parts that are bulkier or less responsive than they used to be.  I also don't like the "alone time" with just my thoughts (plus acutely uncomfortable body awareness) for company because rumination runs rampant.  I have many times come back from a walk or run feeling much much worse about myself because of that.  I know, therapy.  


Besides music/podcasts as distraction, I come up with distracting observational missions for each trek out.  Like, today we're observing the variations in architecture of the neighborhood and thinking about why those styles developed.  Today I'm taking particular notice of the dogs in the neighborhood and imagining what breed combinations the many mutts are.  I feel like I need a secondary "project" or purpose to make the idea of going out to exercise less stressful.

Edited by CirclesOfConfusion
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I love exercise. I feel calmer, more energetic and more positive after a run. But when I'm really down, it just doesn't happen. When I'm severely depressed I don't have the motivation, strength and endurance to do simple chores like unload the dishwasher, let alone exercise. I do find that I need to exercise vigorously to get much benefit. Plain walking doesn't make me feel much different.

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  • 2 weeks later...

What about constantly being under stress, does that make it more resilient? I'm not trying to be snarky. It just occurred to me.


I just wonder because my DH and I have been under HUGE amounts of stress for the last 7 years, with the combo of his Epilepsy, and my Migraine, and BP. Even our pdocs and ndocs said what we were experiencing in terms of stress were pretty high.


Maybe a silver lining to the last few years is that we handle stress better. Mm. Probably not.

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