When a client struggles with anxiety, he or she experiences an array of symptoms that are triggered by the flight or fight response. When encountering a stressor—situations, things, places, or people that trigger the fear response—the body’s sympathetic nervous system instantly begins producing stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline.
This fear response is sometimes due to an irrational or exaggerated response to situations or is triggered by memories of a past trauma. For teens, this might include having to present an oral report at school, trying out for an extracurricular activity, intense fear of being judged or embarrassed publicly, or academic pressures. For adults, the crippling fear may be triggered by social gatherings, delivering a presentation, or starting a new job.
One of the most powerful therapeutic tools available for managing the fear response is exercise. Experiential therapy uses the naturally therapeutic effects of physical movement to harness the chemical benefits of exercise. Through exercise, elevated heart rate leads to an increase of anti-anxiety neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), and endocannabinoids. In essence, this response in brain chemistry helps to reduce feelings of anxiety.
At Alliance Experiential, clients who have difficulty with managing anxiety will participate in cardio activities such as hiking that help activate the non-pharmaceutical benefits of exercise. In addition to the neurotransmitter response, clients will benefit from reduced muscle tension as a result of cardio activities and movement .
I also utilize rock climbing in a controlled gym environment to help teach clients how to respond appropriately to a highly-activated nervous system. Guiding the client through an initially stressful situation can help them acquire useful coping skills that translate to everyday life experiences.
As an experiential therapist, I integrate talk therapy into the fitness sessions. Clients who might otherwise not be open to sharing in an office setting may begin to open up while on a hike. This provides opportunities to walk them through certain stress-invoking situations they describe, offering counsel while we are in motion. This feels less intimidating to young clients, particularly, and allows me to achieve breakthroughs that might not otherwise be revealed in a traditional therapeutic setting.
My goal is to help clients who have anxiety issues to incorporate regular exercise into their regular routine. Establishing a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity will allow the client to enjoy the mental and physical health benefits all week long.