ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 2, Spring 2011

On the couch

Dr Matthew Bambling is a clinical psychologist, researcher, psychotherapist and senior lecturer at ACU. Before moving into academia, he had extensive experience as a clinician in a variety of mental health and human service settings. Here, he answers readers’ burning life questions…

Q1: I always feel better after a jog – like my head has cleared and I am less stressed. But is it really true that exercise is good for your mental health?

Yes, it is true. Exercise is no placebo and there is no down side. It burns up stress hormones, increases feel-good chemicals in our brain – and that’s just the beginning.

There is good research that demonstrates that aerobic exercise up-regulates the genes in our brains that are involved with growth and metabolism. This means we make more neurotrophins, which strengthen and grow the wiring between neurons. This is called neuroplasticity (NP), which is the way our brain responds to environmental demands such as learning or exercise. So exercise enhances memory and learning – great for busy students trying to keep new information in their heads.

The other aspect of NP is that aerobic exercise up-regulates the production of neural stem cells which migrate to areas of the brain, where needed, and join the neural net. Our brains make new neurons at a modest rate, but exercise increases this production. In this way, we can grow new brain cells.

Exercise also appears to stimulate neurotransmitter production for mood, memory and concentration – it makes our brains more efficient.

It also improves all mental health researched to date. We know it helps greatly with depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictions. People who exercise frequently have less risk of dementia and other neurological disorders.

So how much is needed to get these benefits?

It seems we should be doing medium- to high-intensity exercise at least three times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes. Given exercise modifies many physical health risks and problems, there is really no down side. Exercise is cheap, fun and effective, and should become a part of our lifestyle.

As we get older, we can expect to live at least another 10 years if we keep up our exercising lifestyle. east another 10 years if we keep up our exercising lifestyle.

Q2: A friend of mine suffered a panic attack at a concert last week and it came as a shock – to me and her! What are panic attacks? Why do some people have them and not others?

Panic is more common than people realise, and around 20 per cent of the population will suffer from panic attacks at some point in their life, with many going on to a diagnosable panic disorder.

About twice as many women will get panic disorder compared to men, and the age at which many people may have their first panic attack is 15-19 years.

The reason some people are more likely to get panic attacks is not well understood. Some theories suggest there could be a genetic predisposition, or if people have experienced an unhappy or abusive upbringing, they may be more susceptible to anxiety and mood disorders. An important cause of panic attacks not talked about much is intoxication and recreational drug use.

Panic attacks are often unexpected, disabling and frightening. They can occur in inconvenient places such as at a concert or shopping centre, in a lift or driving.

Some symptoms of panic attacks are: racing or pounding heart, tightness in the chest, dizziness or light headedness, difficulty breathing, tingling or numbness in the hands, feeling hot or cold, trembling and shaking, and feelings of dread.

Although the duration of a panic attack can vary greatly, typically it will last for more than 10 minutes before subsiding. If you have had three or more of the symptoms listed above for at least 10 minutes with an unexpected onset, it’s best to seek advice from a mental health professional as there is a chance you have a panic disorder.

The good news is that panic attacks – no matter how frightening – will not harm you. People respond very well to psychological treatment in fewer sessions than most would think is necessary for such a debilitating disorder. Some classes of medications can also assist.

If you know someone who suffers from panic attacks, encourage them to get help – the longer it’s left untreated, the greater the impact it will have on their life.

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Page last updated: 26 Jun 2017

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