How Doing Nothing Can Increase Anxiety

As we’ve explored, anxiety is the most common mental-illness suffered by people across the globe. In the United States alone, it is estimated that 18% of adults struggle with anxiety, with 22.8% of these cases being classified as “severe” by the National Institute of Mental Health. But where is this anxiety coming from? There are a number of potential sources, including daily stresses such as work and school, but a more recent study shows that perhaps the biggest anxiety trigger is doing nothing at all! The Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research, or C-PAN, at Deakin University, in Australia, shows that sedentary behavior may not only negatively affect our physical health by making us more prone to obesity and heart disease, but also may put us at increased risk for anxiety as well.

Sedentary Behavior and How it Relates to Anxiety

Sedentary behavior, defined as activity which requires minimal body movement with low energy expenditure, includes such activities as sitting or lying for long periods of time or spending a lot of time in front of the computer or television with no real movement. While we may know that being sedentary can affect our weight and physical health, the results may be more severe than we previously realized. According to Medical News Today: “A growing body of evidence suggests sedentary behavior is linked to an increased risk of developing many chronic diseases, including obesity, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and even some cancers.” And that’s not all! The study conducted by C-PAN shows that sedentary behavior puts people at increased mental health risk as well.

Researchers examined nine studies that were conducted to determine if a link existed between sedentary behavior and anxiety. Seven of those studies focused on adults while the remaining two included adolescents. What they found was interesting:  “The researchers discovered in five of the studies that an increase in sedentary behavior was associated with an increased risk of developing anxiety. Four of the studies also suggested that increased time spent sitting was associated with an increased risk of anxiety.”

How Doing Nothing Increases Anxiety

The studies that the produced results that were less strong to suggest a correlation between anxiety and sedentary behavior were those which involved on-screen activity such as television watching or computer activity which engages the mental faculties. However, despite this, one study showed that “36% of high school students with more than 2 hours of screen time a day were more likely to develop anxiety than those who had less than 2 hours.” So what does this mean? There is no absolute causal correlation defined between anxiety and sedentary behavior but there is evidence to show that there might be more to this relationship than previously realized.

Medical News Today reports that “of the studies that were available, 78% found at least one positive association between the risk of anxiety and sedentary behavior.” which is enough to warrant further investigation. Meagan Teychenne, lead researcher for the C-PAN study says “Our research showed that evidence is available to suggest a positive association between sitting time and anxiety symptoms – however, the direction of this relationship still needs to be determined through longitudinal and interventional studies.”

What Does This Research Mean for the Future of Anxiety Treatment?

But what is the benefit of this research? Teychenne says that it’s “important that we understand the behavioral factors that may be linked to anxiety – in order to be able to develop evidence-based strategies in preventing/managing this illness” and she’s not alone in believing so. Many researchers like Teychenne believe that increased sedentary behavior is a possible contributing factor towards why as a general society our anxiety levels appear to be increasing. This is because sedentary lifestyles don’t contribute much in the way of actively producing certain hormones like an active lifestyle does. One such hormone is serotonin which is frequently used in antidepressant medication to actively combat depression and anxiety.

Exercise increases the release of endorphins and serotonin, powerful neurotransmitters which contribute to overall mood balance and contribute to a positive mood. Another way to increase serotonin is by getting some sunlight, which can encourage production of the hormone.

In essence, perhaps one of the most effective ways at combating and preventing anxiety is simply to do something. Its deceptively simple, but studies are showing that maintaining an active lifestyle is more effective than being sedentary and effectively “doing nothing”.