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How Walking Helps Anxiety

Daniel Sher, MA, Clin Psychology
How Walking Helps Anxiety

When you suffer from regular, persistent anxiety, you'll often seek out treatment. You'll talk to your doctor about medications, you'll consider therapy, you'll try herbal and homeopathic supplements, and you'll do anything you can to rid yourself of that anxiety forever.

No method is 100% perfect. But one amazing thing about anxiety is that it can sometimes be reduced by simple things you never thought would work. One example is walking. Simply walking around may be what you need to get some level of natural anxiety relief.

Your Anxiety Has a Specific Treatment

All anxiety disorders are different, just like you're different from someone else suffering from anxiety. But anxiety is also extremely treatable, provided you commit to a solution that has been shown to be effective.

But if you're looking for something quick and easy that you can start doing right now, you can't get much better than walking.

Walking and Anxiety

Walking may sound silly. After all, you walk every day and you still have anxiety. But how often you're walking and when you're walking can make a considerable difference in your ability to cope.

Walking has several benefits. These benefits may be different for each person. Still, the following represent some of the very real benefits of walking:

Benefit 1: Movement

It all starts with movement. There is a correlation between physical inactivity and anxiety symptoms, where those that do not burn off enough energy are more prone to suffering from anxiety symptoms. This was demonstrated in a 2009 paper. 

There are likely several reason this occurs:

For these reasons it becomes very important to make sure that you're moving more often, and walking is a great way to ensure that you're getting the level of activity that you need to lower your anxiety. 

Benefit 2: Breathing

Another benefit is the way that walking changes the way you breathe. This is especially true of anxiety and panic attacks, but may affect you at all stages of your anxiety.

Most of the very severe anxiety symptoms, like chest pains, difficulty breathing, etc., are the result of hyperventilation - a common symptom for people with anxiety. Hyperventilation makes it feel like you're not getting enough oxygen (which is why many people gasp for breath when they hyperventilate) but is actually caused by expelling too much carbon dioxide. Your body needs it a balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, and when you breathe too rapidly your oxygen levels might outweigh the carbon dioxide.  

So there are two ways to increase your Co2 levels. The first is to slow your breathing. But many people find this hard, because as stated hyperventilation makes it feel like you aren't breathing enough, and it's tough to fight the urge to take deeper breaths.

Walking represents a nice alternative. The more you walk and move, the more your body creates carbon dioxide naturally, and the more your body tends to breathe more efficiently. It's not 100% fool proof (if you think about your breathing too much, walking may not work as well), but it can be very effective at making sure your body regains its natural balance.

Some believe that the increased blood flow that results from walking may also provide a similar benefit in terms of countering the effects of anxiety symptoms.

Benefit 3: Distractions

Walking also provides a considerable amount of sensory distraction. When you're walking, you're feeling the ground and the wind, you're processing the information that's around you, you're smelling different things, etc. Even if all you do is walk around your home, you're constantly using your brain to process new things.

One of the most effective ways to deal with anxiety is to simply reduce the amount you think about your symptoms. You can't fight your thoughts (and you shouldn't, because this may actually increase anxiety) but you can make it harder for your mind to focus by ensuring that it's forced to process many different types of information all at once. Walking - especially if you can also get outside - gives your mind much healthy stimulation and sensory distraction. This, in turn, may well decrease your anxiety symptoms.

Benefit 4: Moving Up to Jogging

Someday, if possible, walking could also lead to jogging, and jogging can also help reduce anxiety levels. Jogging for long distances actually releases neurotransmitters that reduce stress and anxiety, while also reducing levels of some of the hormones that are linked to anxiety symptoms.

Jogging is a great goal in the long run. But it's often hard to jog if you haven't first gotten used to walking often throughout the day. So you start by walking more and more often, and then if you're feeling healthy enough and ready you can progress to jogging.

Using Walking as an Anxiety Treatment

Walking works, and it works well. It may not control all your anxiety producing thoughts or prevent all of your anxiety symptoms, but walking is a type of remedy that can actually make a very real difference on your ability to cope with anxiety. 

Nonetheless, at times, you may find that walking helps your anxiety but isn’t enough on its own to give you the relief that you need. That’s absolutely fine: some therapists recommend using walking in addition to other treatments for best results.

Article Resources
  1. Merom, Dafna, et al. Promoting walking as an adjunct intervention to group cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders a pilot group randomized trial. Journal of anxiety disorders 22.6 (2008): 959-968.
  2. Morita, Emi, et al. Psychological effects of forest environments on healthy adults: Shinrin-yoku (forest-air bathing, walking) as a possible method of stress reduction. Public health 121.1 (2007): 54-63.
  3. Rippe, James M., et al. Walking for health and fitness. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association 259.18 (1988): 2720-2724.
  4. Ströhle, Andreas. Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders. Journal of neural transmission .116.6 (2009): 777-784. 
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