Most people know that exercise is extremely beneficial for anxiety and depression, but here's a conundrum that no one talks about: Exercise can also be quite triggering for people with anxiety.
It's important to acknowledge this and discuss some ways to work through anxiety that's triggered by exercise. I'll break down the problems first and then address solutions at the end of the article.
Ways Exercise Can Trigger Anxiety
1. Sensations of exertion are similar to anxiety.
People who are anxious often don't like feeling a raised heart rate, sweating, and other physical sensations that are similar to anxiety. This varies a lot by person. For example, my spouse who has a history of panic attacks doesn't mind jogging and uses it for stress relief, but some anxious people fear that exercise could trigger a panic attack.
2. More generally, any out of the ordinary physical sensations unsettle people with anxiety.
People who are anxious tend to be 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."
Personally, after I've exercised, I often find myself feeling very distracted by the normal types of sensations you get from using parts of your body in new/different ways. I don't think these sensations indicate anything is wrong but, especially after strength training, all day I find myself being aware of non-typical sensations in my body and it's distracting and fatiguing. If you're a Highly Sensitive Person, you may be particularly prone to feeling distracted by physical sensations.
3. You fear pain or injuries.
Here's another personal example: When I was a college student, I had years of problems with pain from writing and typing. As soon as I wasn't a student anymore, these issues almost completely disappeared, to my great relief! However, sometimes when I exercise I get some twinges of similar pain (e.g., golfer's elbow) and I get very anxious that my prior issues are going to set in again. I know pain means I need to try an exercise in a different way and improve my form, but I feel nervous to try that in case it doesn't work and it kicks off a pain cycle I can't stop.
4. Social anxiety gets in the way of exercising.
The most obvious example of social anxiety impacting exercise is fear of what you look like while exercising. People with social anxiety often have specific fears about appearing flushed or sweaty, or smelling bad. However, there are also much subtler versions of social anxiety that impact exercising.
Last week at the gym, I wanted to use the pull-up machine. It was available but someone else was using the machine next to it. I instantly created an anxiety-based mental rule: "Don't use the machine if anyone is using the one next door. It's awkward to be that close to someone else exerting themselves." The irony was that I waited for both machines to be free and as soon as I got on the pull-up machine, someone came and started using the machine next door, so I ended up exercising next to someone anyway.
Here's another time I noticed anxiety-related thinking getting in the way of exercising. My gym has staff available if you want to ask for advice about using the machines. It's their job to do this. Yet, it took me months to pluck up the courage to ask for a few demos and for them to check my form. For some reason, I didn't feel entitled to their time even though I'm a paying member like everyone else.
5. Stupid comments stick with you.
Anxious people tend to be prone to rumination. Therefore, if anyone has made a comment to you that has put you off exercising, you're probably still thinking about it. I remember a trainer made a comment to me along the lines of, "If you just do that, it probably won't do anything." Even though I disagreed, the comment still lingered with me and deflated my enthusiasm for doing it at all.
6. Other idiosyncratic fears and anxieties.
Being prone to anxiety means your brain will come up with anything and everything to feel anxious about. For instance, exercising makes me feel relaxed, tired, and hungry. The problem is that I get too relaxed and when I get home after the gym I want to sit around eating and not work. So, I end up worrying that exercising is going to make me more hungry than what I burn off, and will result in not getting enough work done! Another thing I fear is getting sick from other people's germs, even though I clean the equipment with the provided disinfectant wipes before I start.
Try paying attention to any random anxiety-thoughts about exercising that your brain comes up with! You can then say to yourself, "Oh, that's just my anxiety-brain again."
Solutions to Get Yourself Exercising in Spite of Anxiety
Even if exercise triggers some anxiety for you, it's highly likely it'll be a net positive and may have a massively beneficial impact on your anxiety. Try the following strategies to minimize anxiety triggered by exercise.
- Exercise in whatever way you like. You don't have to do the classic gym program of weights and cardio. The goal is just to be active. Some days I go to the gym and jog, but other days I go and walk at three miles an hour and watch YouTube or read Slack on my phone! Some days I borrow a basketball from the front desk and go shoot baskets, do the rock climbing wall, or just use the machines. Increasingly, activity guidelines recognize the value of any physical activity. This is a great goal.
- If you're going to join a gym, consider a more community-oriented one. The gym I go to is has a huge age range of (mostly middle-aged and older) people working out. It's usually very uncrowded and virtually no one there looks like your typical gym bunny. This sort of atmosphere can help cut down on social comparison and help you focus on the goal of being active rather than changing your appearance.
- Pay attention to what sort of exercise leaves you feeling good, and make changes as needed to accommodate injuries and niggles. Try exercises that work big muscle groups and experiment with what helps you feel most relaxed. For instance, I like just hanging (from bars) as a way to stretch out my body.
- Ask for advice from staff and trainers, but remember you don't have to take it. You can design whatever workout works for you.