Sweating. Heart Racing. Shallow Breathing. Do these words describe a panic attack or a workout? Some research shows that the answer could be both.
According to Health.com, working out can be a major trigger for those who already suffer from anxiety, and “during a workout, the stress hormone cortisol can rise, because exertion activates the sympathetic nervous system. People who have panic disorder are hyper-attuned to any increase in stress hormones and sympathetic nervous system arousal. They actually interpret those shifts in the body as dangerous—leading to more cortisol, adrenaline, and nervous system arousal.”
Working out is typically an incredible, natural way to combat stress. Research shows that “A simple bike ride, dance class, or even a brisk walk can be a powerful tool for those suffering from chronic anxiety.” Yet anxiety is complex and unique to each person who experiences it, and exercise might cause more harm than good in some cases. Some people who experience anxiety find they are “hypervigilant to any change in their physical sensations. They often mentally check-in on how they’re feeling physically as a way of assessing “Am I safe? Am I ok”.” Those who are so accustomed to a high-alert mental state find the accompanying physical stress of working out too overwhelming. Moreover, another factor of exercise is the ability to persist—walk that extra mile, push through a few extra reps, challenge the body’s limits. Some people with anxiety who have the added hurdle of atychiphobia—the fear of failure—find that this fear can be debilitating. “Between 2 and 5 percent of the American population is affected by [atychiphobia]” in its varying degrees. That means approximately 16,626,073.15 Americans are afraid to workout, despite its many benefits, because they might fail. That number doesn’t account for those with social anxiety, body anxiety, agliophobia—the fear of pain, or the many other kinds of anxieties that could affect one’s ability to workout.
The endless cycle of working out to be less anxious, all the while getting anxious because of working out, leads many people to simply give up. However, the benefits of regular exercise, both physically and mentally, are considerable. So here are three ways you might be able to work through exercise anxiety so you can begin to enjoy your workout:
1. Professional Help
You should always seek professional help in this matter first. Dr. Todd Thatcher says, “If you jump to conclusions about the condition you’re suffering from, you may begin wrongful treatment. When individuals self-diagnose psychological syndromes, they can miss a medical disease that contributes to their symptoms.” Anxiety is an incredibly unique mental state for each person experiencing it. If you are self-diagnosed, you should see a therapist and a doctor to make sure what you are experiencing is in fact exercise anxiety. If you are sure you have exercise anxiety, someone like a certified coach could help you achieve a specific goal around exercise. For example, perhaps you want to be able to grow in your confidence to participate in a workout class or you’re looking to take steps to get back to an old workout routine you used to love but now feel anxiety around. A coach will help you define such a goal, define the obstacles to achieving it, and work with you towards accomplishing it with guidance.
2. Take It Slow
A study conducted in 2018 found “Aerobic exercise can promote an acute increase in anxiety and regular aerobic exercise promotes reduction in anxiety levels.” Meaning, at the beginning aerobic exercise can feel daunting, even terrifying, as anxiety temporarily increases. However, as exercise becomes more consistent the positive anxiety-reducing properties of exercise increases. So, take it slow. It’s a journey, not a race! Exercising at your own pace helps your body to focus on the feel-good endorphins instead of the potential fear associated with a brutal sweat-session. Psychology Today suggests to “Pay attention to what sort of exercise leaves you feeling good, and make changes as needed…” Anxiety is personal, and so is an anxious person’s exercise regime.
The mind of an anxious person is often spinning wildly, but meditation can help. VeryWellMind notes that “If you live with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), meditation can also help to reduce worrying thoughts and bring about a feeling of balance, calm, and focus. For the 6.8 million Americans who live with chronic daily anxiety, meditation can offer a way to finally relax.” There are several ways to meditate, so again here a coach could be beneficial in discovering which meditation practice is right for you. Meditation reduces feelings of anxiety both while meditating and even after the act of meditation is over. Neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes studied the effect of meditation on the brain: “In 2012, she demonstrated that changes in brain activity in subjects who have learned to meditate hold steady even when they’re not meditating. Desbordes took before-and-after scans of subjects who learned to meditate over the course of two months. She scanned them not while they were meditating, but while they were performing everyday tasks. The scans still detected changes in the subjects’ brain activation patterns from the beginning to the end of the study, the first time such a change — in a part of the brain called the amygdala — had been detected.” This incredible research recognizes that the brain has the power to heal itself! With practiced meditation, patience, and time, those suffering from exercise anxiety may be able to find some relief.
Working out has incredible health benefits both to our body and mind. For those with anxiety, especially exercise anxiety, these benefits can feel out of reach. Remember that help is out there and that with the right tools you can accomplish anything.