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How I Conquered My 'Gym Anxiety'

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I know a lot of people struggling with anxiety can relate to how terrifying walking into a gym feels.

The last thing you want is to feel as though you’re being watched, as you flail about on the treadmills and strain to get your body to move in the most awkward positions — all the while wondering if your leggings really are “squat proof.” Because this notion can seem more hellish than helpful, a lot of people with anxiety chose to avoid the gym altogether.

I was one of them. I had never stepped foot inside a gym until my university counselor suggested I go to try and help combat my anxiety and depression. At first I thought his idea was ludicrous. I thought the trauma of going would do my mental health more damage than good and left the session feeling as though I had received no useful help at all.

At our next session, the first question he asked me was, “So, how was the gym?” I had to come clean and confess I had no intention of going, which lead him to explain all the benefits of real, hard exercise on mental health.

He said working out is a natural mood enhancer. So although we may hate exercise, our brains actually love it, releasing mood-regulating endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, which make us feel good. It can help you feel more energized, which helps combat those mornings when you wake up feeling so lethargic you can’t face the idea of getting out of bed, let alone starting the day. It can help reduce stress. Feelings of anger, frustration, panic — they can be released through healthy, physical exercise, rather than emotional outbursts when it all becomes too much. He said it’s a well known confidence booster, and an anxiety reducer. It’s an activity that helps give you a routine, which gets you out of the house and in an environment where you have to interact with other people. He also said it would help me eat and sleep well (a massive bonus). Anxiety can destroy my appetite and give me sleepless nights. However, a quick but intense workout will tire me out and give me the munchies.

All these benefits sounded awesome to me. However, I realized just sitting and listening to all the positives of going to the gym was the easy part. The really hard bit was going to be overcoming my anxiety and easing myself into an alien environment I really didn’t want to experience. It soon became clear to me the only way I was going to achieve this impossible feat was by coming up with a plan to help reduce a number of the worries and fears I had about going into the gym.

My first step was finding a gym I liked. I did this by going into gyms with my friends or my sister, and having a good look around. I decided I preferred gyms that were bigger and more spacious as it looked like I would have more privacy to exercise.

I then began looking up workouts and planned a routine I could do on my first visit.  This helped calm my nerves about being unsure of what to do and looking lost, which would lead to me panicking, quickly leaving and achieving nothing.

To reduce the fear of being watched and being surrounded by people, I made sure I went late in the evening when the gym was quiet. (If you are a morning person, unlike me, going in the mornings is a good idea too!) Not being watched helped me feel more comfortable and, as time went on, I was able to exercise in front of more and more people.

It all sounds so simple, but these three steps really helped me overcome my anxiety. I now feel completely at home in the gym. I can go whenever I want during the day. I’ve lost all fear of being watched and judged by others because I’ve learned no one really cares. Everyone is doing their own thing and not interested in anyone else. My confidence has grown so much and my family and friends have all noticed a big difference in my personality.

I can now say I love “gymming” and it’s not about losing weight or becoming fitter. I go because lifting weights makes me feel confident and strong when my anxiety makes me feel small.

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Thinkstock photo via master1305.

Originally published: July 11, 2017
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