If you’ve ever had an anxious “I’m about to bolt from this gym right now” moment while exercising, you’re not alone. Anxiety showing up uninvited mid-workout is common — for both established fitness lovers and those who are totally new to the journey.
Some people experience social anxiety at the gym, while others try to ward off sensations of panic. When you consider the effect of exercise on your body chemistry and the social dynamics of public workout spaces, it begins to make a lot of sense.
Understanding why anxiety arises at the gym — and how you can overcome it — is the best foundation for a calm workout routine. So why does it happen, and seriously, how can we make it stop?
Let’s get strategic about it.
Not only can a good old sweat sesh shift your mood immediately, but it can also help build regular resilience against stress and anxiety when added into a routine. Don’t drop that dumbbell; you’re onto something good.
The thing is, the act of exercise stirs up your body.
Even though exercise results in a cortisol decrease hours later, things can get overwhelming at the moment. We can easily misinterpret these bodily sensations as anxiety, which begins a not-so-fun cycle.
“The physical symptoms of anxiety are very similar to what we experience physically during exercise,” explains Onur Bal, a licensed psychologist based in Istanbul, Turkey, with years of experience working with clients who experience anxiety.
“Rapid breathing, shortness of breath, a pounding heart or increased heart rate, muscle tension or pain — people who experience anxiety may automatically interpret these reactions as just that — more anxiety.”
And if you know, you know: Anxiety is one hell of an avalanche. One weird-feeling inhale can send you to sound-the-alarm-bells levels while you’re trying to play it cool on the treadmill. It can be hard to talk yourself down while your body is so activated.
Anxiety can take on many forms, some more mental than physical. People who experience social anxiety, for example, typically feel anxious in social settings.
“Social anxiety is more than shyness,” explains Bal. “It’s a fear that doesn’t go away and affects daily activities, self-confidence, relationships, and work or school life. And, of course, exercising in gyms.”
The following aspects of the gym can be difficult for someone who experiences social anxiety:
- not knowing how to use equipment
- feeling like people are judging you
- changing in locker rooms around others
Factor in potential crowds, modern-day beauty standards, and all the comparisons of social media, and you’ve got a situation ripe for anxiety.
“It’s all about the uncertainty,” says Bal.
Panic attacks can feel like the apocalypse in your own body, but it’s a cold hard fact that anxiety will not cause you to die. Period.
One more time for the people in the back: No matter how convincing the intense feelings of fear are, you must remember that they will 100% pass.
“It can help greatly to become knowledgeable about the physical symptoms of anxiety,” explains Bal. “Whether before, during, or after the gym, being aware of what’s going on in your body can provide mental relief.”
More times than I’d like to admit, I found myself hunching over at the gym, warding off anxious sensations in my body after a heavy set.
Once I learned the body chemistry behind anxiety, I started being able to move through these sensations with more trust in myself.
Now I think, “Yeah, I just lifted a heavy AF weight, why wouldn’t I feel a little woozy?”
Avoid being pumped with adrenaline with nowhere to go. Knowing a gym’s layout can ease some anxiety ahead of time, so you know exactly where you’re heading once you get all riled up.
“You can ask the gym staff or a trainer about anything you don’t know [like] where to find equipment, how to do an exercise, and so on,” explains Bal.
The simpler and more streamlined you can make your gym routine, the better.
A quiet, empty gym has done absolute wonders for my brain on so many occasions. If crowds tend to overwhelm you — or you feel more comfortable without so many eyes around — try working out during off-peak hours to start.
In most places, this means super early in the morning or after the mid-morning rush. Definitely skip the hours between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., when many folks are getting out of work.
Think mid-afternoon or right before closing time, when you’ll have all the machines to yourself in a much more chilled-out setting.
Food is fuel, my friends — for the body and brain. Pre-workout nutrition is important to both maximize performance and keep you feeling your best.
When you exercise on an empty stomach, lower blood sugar levels might cause you to feel lightheaded or shaky, especially if you’re lifting heavy weights. It’s also natural for anyone to feel a little woozy after hitting a new personal record.
Don’t sleep on being well-hydrated, either. One
Mindfulness, whether it’s via your favorite Spotify meditation or quick breathing practice, can set you up for a calm session at the gym.
Honestly, I wish I knew what 4-7-8 breathing was when I first started hitting the gym regularly. This breathing exercise is a game changer, with a 4-count inhale, 7-count hold, and 8-count exhale.
According to a
In a matter of seconds, learning to control your breath can change your state of being, bringing you back to calm.
If you get overstimulated during a workout, reduce the intensity in all ways. You might find it helpful to switch to less intense music, do some slow stretches, or take a walk.
Bal advises clients to use their breath to regain a sense of calm. “Breathing exercises can be very helpful both before the exercises and during them to manage any anxiety you might experience,” he explains.
If I had a dollar for every time I used a breathing exercise to chill myself out in between sets at the gym, I could at least pay for a month’s membership. This stuff works.
Whether that’s 4-7-8 breathing, box breathing, or another modality of your choice, mastering your breath is an anxiety game changer.
Anxiety can feel super isolating, especially when you’re in the middle of a room full of cold metal equipment and sweaty people intently doing their own thing.
It’s important to remember, however, just how common feelings of anxiety are.
Once you put in the work to understand what’s going on in your brain and body, it can become much easier to trust that you’ll be alright even when uncomfortable sensations arise.
Anxiety-born discomfort does not equal actual danger — so remember, your anxiety is lying to you. You’ve got this.
Sarah Lempa is a writer and entrepreneur as the founder of Dang Fine Creative, a digital content agency. In her writing, she covers travel, mental health, business, sex and relationships, along with whatever else is currently inspiring her. Her words have appeared in Business Insider, VICE, HuffPost, Lonely Planet, and more. While originally from the Chicago area, she’s called multiple countries home and has ventured across six continents along the way. When she’s not chipping away at a piece, you’ll find her jamming out to groovy beats or riding a motorcycle. Keep up with Sarah on Instagram.