While researching for another article, I happened upon a discussion thread about anxiety attacks and exercise. While science has shown that exercise generally lowers anxiety by producing endorphins in the brain, a number of individuals stated that as much as they want to exercise, doing so induces anxiety attacks for them. Obviously, this is a problem. We need to exercise for health, as well as to lower our stress, but how can we do that if the exercise itself produces anxiety attacks?
To be honest, I’ve noticed a similar problem sometimes when I exercise. It’s usually after I’ve been on the bike for about five minutes, right when I’ve gotten warmed up and have raised my resistance on whatever machine I’m on. My heart starts to pump even harder than I expected, and suddenly, distressing thoughts and images come to mind. Worst-case scenarios present themselves, and I feel a quick bout of near depression. My first instinct is to jump off the bike. If I started feeling that way while exercising, isn’t it best to separate myself from the situation?
It’s More Common than You Think
Summer Beretsky wrote about a similar experience in the article, “When Physical Exercise Feels Just Like A Panic Attack for Psychology Today. In it, she talks about how her doctors and friends told her over and over again how getting in shape and exercising regularly would help her lower her anxiety. There’s a Catch-22, however, she says, “exercising made me panic.”
Livestrong.com’s article, “My Anxiety Gets Worse During Exercise,” also notes the struggle for some people who who have anxiety. The article notes that adults are often more aware of signs of anxiety attacks after they’ve had one, which means they’ll be on the lookout for anything that seems like an anxiety attack later on, even if it’s not.
Both articles note the same thing: Anxiety attacks and exercise share certain symptoms, the first being increased heart rate. This means faster breathing, as well as a rush of adrenaline. I’ve also read in online discussions that increased sweat production bothers some people. We can see how it’s easy to confuse the two. And honestly, if you’re trying to avoid anxiety attacks, the last thing you probably want to do is put yourself in a situation where it feels like you’re having another one.
So we know the symptoms match, and we know that it’s easy to confuse exercise and anxiety attack symptoms. The question is, what do we do about it?
Exercise:1 Anxiety 0
I’ll admit that I’ve had the urge to hop off the bike before when it felt like I was having an anxiety attack, particularly when the barrage of anxious thoughts pops up as well (a symptom I haven’t found as much about, but I’m sure others have it, too). But I don’t.
Because I know what it feels like on the other side.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Runner’s High.” Well here’s a secret: you don’t have to be a runner to enjoy this “high” everyone talks about. As I discuss in my article, “Exercise Produces Natural Doses of Medicine through Neurotransmitters,” exercise increases the endorphin (“happy chemicals”) in our brains and cuts the stress chemical, cortisol. Believe me when I tell you that the relief is there on the other side of your exercise.
You just have to push through it.
When I’m feeling anxious during that first part of the exercise, I try to find ways to distract myself, such as watching the big TVs in the gym, or reading on my NOOK. Some people who exercise outside find music to be a good distraction. Summer Beretsky suggests starting different types of exercise if the normal ones, such as going to a gym, stress you out.
There are many different ways to exercise, from the usual running and bike riding to dance classes to pilates to joining an intramural sports team. Heck, you can do lots of things in your own living room with DVDs or videos from Pinterest if you so desire. No one says you have to begin as a five-star athlete. The goal isn’t competition; it’s maintaining your health in both body and mind.
Just two more personal notes
(1) If you struggle with anxious thoughts popping up during your exercise, think of your exercise as a purge or a cleanse. I imagine all those negative thoughts floating to the top, and as the exercise continues, I have the change to scoop them up and throw them out. It’s a great way to feel like you’ve taken control, knowing after a workout that you fought back and won.
This is my brand new exercise bike and balance ball for my physical therapy. I cannot express to you how excited I am to have them.
(2) I feel my best when I get a mix of cardio and strength training. I’m not going to get into the necessary ratios of how much cardio one should do as opposed to how much time is spent on strength training. I just have a routine that works for me, one I’ve discovered through trial and error. I start with cardio, then I have a set of basic exercises I can do with my whopping 3 lb. weights (I have back problems.) that I do and my balance ball. You don’t by any means have to do this. My point is that you need to find what works for you, and this personally works for me.
Exercise is a great way to feel empowered against your anxiety. I’m constantly amazed at how God created our bodies with built in methods to naturally cut anxiety. If you want to begin an exercise regime, but aren’t quite sure how, don’t be afraid to experiment. There are resources galore online. (I’ll be including some of my favorites in my next newsletter.) The important thing is that you don’t give up. Believe me, the payoff is worth it!
Have you ever experienced workout induced anxiety attacks? What did you do to address them? Do you have any tips to share? I’d love to hear your comments and questions, so please post them in the Comment Box below. Also, don’t forget that if you sign up for my weekly newsletter, you’ll get extra resources on neurological disorders, as well as a gift in thanks for signing up. Thanks for reading!