Not many people connect sports with panic disorder – when thinking of the characteristics of panic disorder or the symptoms of a panic attack, factoring in sport might seem surprising. However, my fellow researchers and I have found that sports participation in adolescence can significantly decrease risks of panic symptoms in early adulthood.
A Definitive Link Between Sports and Mental Health
Physical activity is known to have a host of positive effects on one’s physical and mental well being. Researchers, including our team, have found that physical activity even has a protective effect on many facets of mental health. Physical activity contributes to the reduction of depression and anxiety symptoms and to the improvement of stress management. Unfortunately, most of the research has been focused on short-term effects. And there is much less known about the effects of physical activity on anxiety when compared to the body of research on depression and stress. It is not uncommon to see depression and anxiety studied together with little regard for the different underlying causes, symptoms, and impact. Along these lines, researchers rarely examine anxiety subtypes and often look at anxiety as a global mental health indicator. This is unfortunate, since the anxiety subtypes may be affected differently by participation in physical activity and sport.
To address this need to better understand the relationship between physical activity and the different anxiety subtypes, we conducted a study looking at how sports participation in adolescence may affect the risks of developing anxiety in early adulthood. We studied symptoms for several anxiety subtypes: Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and Agoraphobia. (See the definitions at the bottom of this article.)
We began our examination of physical activity and anxiety subtypes by using data from an ongoing longitudinal study that began in 1999.1 In this study, male and female high school adolescents reported on their sports participation every three months over the course of five years. They then reported on their mental health over three years later as young adults.2
Youth Sports Participation Decreases Panic Symptoms
Through this research, we found that sports participation in adolescence was negatively associated with all subtypes of anxiety, with the strongest effects emerging for Panic Disorder. Adolescents who participated in sports were approximately 30% less likely to report panic symptoms compared to adolescents who did not participate in sports. These research findings point to the possible anxiety reducing effects of sports and physical activity. Furthermore, they indicate a promising possible anti-panic effect.
Panic attacks are characterized by heightened arousal of the sympathetic nervous system––increased heartbeat, rapid breathing, and increased sweating. Because sports participation can result in these exact same responses, it could act as a form of exposure therapy explaining why the more one participates in sports in adolescence, the less likely he or she is to have symptoms of Panic Disorder later on.
Preventing Future Mental Health Issues With Adolescent Sports Participation
The mental health benefits stemming from sports participation range from lower levels of depression and stress, to enhanced mental health and reduced anxiety symptoms.3 When anxiety is investigated as separate subtypes, it is clear that sports participation has the strongest effect on reducing symptoms of panic over time. These findings offer yet another reason to try to help more kids to be active, setting up childhood and adolescence as a starting point for sports participation. Although sports participation typically drops substantially throughout adolescence if young males and females can continue to participate, it can help protect their mental health in the future.4
Panic Disorder is characterized by the presence of panic attacks in which the person feels a fear of disaster. The panic attacks are accompanied by physiological symptoms such as increased heart rate and sweating. This disorder can result in individuals feeling worried about when their next panic attack will occur, and can interfere with daily living.
Social Anxiety, also known as Social Phobia Disorder, is characterized by a constant sense of fear of judgment by others, of embarrassment and of social situations in general.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is characterized by chronic worry about everyday things such as money, relationships and work. These worries tend to be excessive and unrealistic, and persist across situations.
Agoraphobia is characterized as having a fear of being in crowds or public places. This type of anxiety results in individuals not participating in daily interactions that are commonplace for others.
1Nicotine Dependence in Teens: http://ndit.crchum.qc.ca
2Note: the findings of this research are currently under review for publication and were presented at an annual conference: Ashdown-Franks, G., Sabiston, C. M., Jewett, R., Barnett, T., Auger, N., O’Loughlin, J. (October 2014). The association between adolescent socioeconomic status, sport participation and early adulthood anxiety. Canadian Society for Psychomotor Learning and Sport Psychology, London, ON.
3Jewett, R., Sabiston, C. M., Brunet, J., O’Loughlin, E., Scarapicchia, T., & O’Loughlin, J. (2014). Sport participation during adolescence and mental health in early adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Health, 55, 640-644. See also: https://www.anxiety.org/team-sports-help-teens-avo…
4Bélanger M, Gray-Donald K, O’Loughlin J, Paradis G, Hanley J. (2009). When adolescents drop the ball: sustainability of physical activity in youth. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 37, 41-49.