Exercise Anxiety

I’ve had a strained relationship with exercise. I know it’s good for me, and inactivity can be pretty unhealthy but for a lot of my life exercise has given me anxiety, and even triggered panic attacks. In high school, I avoided gym class activities and got permission to use the treadmill which was a much more controlled activity. I could set my pace, and do what I was comfortable with. When I was in college, I had a panic attack while using a ski machine and I couldn’t keep it up anymore.

It’s the unfortunate truth that the way the body reacts to exercise like increased heart rate and heavier breathing can feel like a panic attack. For me, this was only exacerbated by the fact that I tend to hyperventilate when I’m anxious, and that would cause me to feel lightheaded. Because a large part of anxiety disorder is avoidance, I avoided most exercise aside from brisk walks. Yes, I tried yoga but it still triggered my anxiety and I gave up after a couple of attempts.

8 years later, after a pretty big breakup, I started on a quest to reinvent myself. Part of that included getting into better shape. I was never overweight, but I wasn’t exactly in amazing shape. It helped that my job kept me on my feet 6-8 hours a day but it basically just kept my weight in check. I started with pushups, and I am embarrassed to admit that I could not do more than 5 but I worked my way up to 10, then 15, then 20, and so on. But I hated it so much.

I fell out of that routine a few times, but I just kept trying. Finally, a little over a year ago, I bought myself an Apple Watch. It was kind of an impulse buy, but it ended up changing my life in a good way. I’m not saying you have to go out and buy an expensive watch to whip yourself into shape, but as someone who’s a bit of a tech nerd, and a lover of tracking stats, it definitely pushed me in a positive direction.

Whether you buy an expensive watch with fitness tracking or not, you don’t want to go from 0 to 100 immediately. I explored a bit with various exercises, trying to find what worked for me and what I enjoyed (or at the very least didn’t hate). I settled on jogging in place, which sounds boring as hell but I think that’s what I needed. Unlike with the pushups I was a bit more physically capable, but I kept things short at first anyway so as not to push my anxiety too hard.

The first day I hit the 30-minute workout was amazing. I felt nervous for sure, but I pushed through and didn’t panic. I sat down, closed my eyes, and just breathed. I haven’t hit that goal every day since, in fact, most days I haven’t, but I know that I can do it, and I always work towards that goal. Some days I make it 10 minutes before I start to feel the anxiety creeping in, but I know it’s just the result of a bad day, and tomorrow I can try again.

I feel like that’s the story of overcoming any challenge; taking small steps, working your way up, and accepting that you did your best even when you’re met by setbacks. I always say progress, no matter what it is, is never linear. One day you take 2 steps forward, and the next you’ll take a step back. What matters is that you keep walking.