When you think of anxiety in the gym, you might think of someone who’s not been there in years. Or ever. You might think of someone intimidated by the weights and the sweat and the people. You might think of someone just starting their journey in fitness, unsure of what to do once they’re there. You might not think of me.
Anxiety can be crippling. It can creep into the most unassuming moments of the day and quickly turn them into the most distressing moments. For many, for me, these moments of anxiety happen in the gym.
I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of my anxiousness. When it happens, it’s always before my squats which are the first lift of my training sessions. My heart races, I struggle to focus, and my legs and arms start to feel weak. You know, all the things you’d want to feel before going into a heavy session. I’m not anxious about failing because I know how to fail safely and I have spotter. I know I’m not anxious about the grueling sets I’m about to do. I do them all the time. I’m used to having people around so that’s not the culprit. To be honest, I don’t really notice other people around me, anyway.
These sessions are important to me, so I can’t let anxiety get in the way every time I’m in the rack. Since I haven’t sorted out why my anxiety kicks in, I’ve learned a few ways to manage it. If you experience anxiety in the gym (or anywhere), these techniques might help you, too.
I limit caffeine. Coffee is a morning ritual for me, as I’m sure it is for lots of people. When I train on the weekends, I often go shortly after breakfast which means my caffeine game is strong. The jittering accelerates my anxiety, so I’ve learned to cut back on the coffee and stick with water to stay hydrated.
I distract myself. Sometimes I’ll scroll through social media on my phone, or watch whatever’s on the TV at the gym, or I’ll find a spot on the floor and just focus on it. The key, I’ve found, is getting my mind away from thinking about the anxiety. Thinking about it gives it fuel.
I focus on breathing. It makes me feel in control when my heart is racing, and it’s another form of distraction. I use the only part of yoga I’ve ever been good at, which is the breathing. I take that back, I’m damn good at savasana.
I catch a breeze. The cool draft from the AC or a fan or a quick break outside helps me feel a bit more centered and calm.
I eat enough. If I haven’t eaten sufficiently before the gym, I know it can add to the feeling of faintness I experience with the anxiety. I’ll even keep food in my gym bag for this reason. And because, food.
I zero in on the moments without anxiety. If a get a split second where the anxiety has disappeared, then at least I know it’s possible for me to not be anxious. I focus on this feeling and keep telling myself that I’m capable of being there without it. Just as my frustrated thoughts about the anxiety add fuel to its fire, my thoughts about being able to overcome it allow that feeling to multiply.
This anxiety isn’t predictable. It’s not present every time I’m at the gym, and I can’t tell when it’s going to come on. But being aware of it and how to manage it has been essential to not letting it hold me back. Eventually, these techniques might not be enough to manage it anymore, and that’s okay. For some, they may never be enough. Getting more help when needed is important, too.
While training to be physically strong, anxiety can be seen as a weakness, but I don’t see it this way. I’m a big believer in talking about mental health and sharing these experiences. It’s such a vital aspect of our lives that still gets glossed over. My hope is that other people who experience anxiety, in or out of the gym, realize they are not alone.