Anyone that has experienced a panic attack knows that they would do almost anything to never feel those symptoms again. So what do you do when exercise brings on these symptoms and your safe space becomes utterly terrifying? This is my experience and what I have learned dealing with just that.
Exercise has been a huge part of my life since I can remember. I played sports all through grade school and I never had symptoms of chronic anxiety or panic during this time. As I moved onto college I began going to fitness classes like circuit training, TRX, and spinning. I loved these classes and they helped me manage the often extreme stress I experienced. Then one day exercise wasn't just not fun anymore, it was downright frightening.
During a time when stress was at a peak and I was navigating the black hole that I call professional school, I had a panic attack while at the gym. From then on I associated panic with exercising and this became an uphill battle for years. I couldn't make it through a spin class without feeling like I was going to have a heart attack. I would turn off all my resistance and just ride easy. If my heart rate got too high I would panic. Each time I tried to run or participate in a cardio class I would have chest pain. I saw multiple doctors and had every necessary heart test and chest examination with nothing except a benign heart murmur revealed. This was a challenging time with my anxiety and because of school, I didn't have time to truly deal with it.
How Does Exercise Mimic Anxiety?
Exercising is known to be one of the best ways to manage stress and anxiety so why does it actually make anxiety worse for some people?
The problem usually comes down to natural outcomes of exercise mimicking symptoms of panic. When we increase the intensity of our physical activity, our heart rate and respirations spike and we sometimes feel short of breath. During vigorous activity, we also experience normal muscle pains or spasms in our chest, back, head, etc. If these completely ordinary effects of exertion lead to an anxious thought, our brain spirals into a fight or flight response. This leads to chemical changes in the body such blood redistribution to our organs and large muscle groups causing us to feel lightheaded, our pupils dilating with a sudden change in vision causing us to feel disoriented, and our body generally prepping itself for survival. This protection mechanism would be life saving in a dangerous situation, but the problem is that we are usually at a safe professional gym or running in the park. Confronting the debilitating fear of our anxiety amongst people laughing, pop music, children playing, and guys flexing in the mirror is genuinely awful.
Anxiety doesn't always make sense, but we have to deal with it and learn from it or we will never take back our life. Agoraphobia is more common than most people think and relating it to exercise could quickly lead to avoiding the gym, favorite activities, and anything that increases your heart rate.
What I've Learned
I have been on a journey to improve my health, figure out who I am, and overcome anxiety for years and this is what I have learned about exercise and panic.
1. Exercise is truly a wonderful way to improve our health and manage our stress. For those of us with exercise induced anxiety it will take longer to discover a love and comfort in physical exertion, but it is possible. In the moment just stop, breathe deeply, bring awareness to your surroundings, drink some cold water, and walk if it's feasible. Allow your heart rate to slow down and reassess. Laying on a foam roller is also a go to for me or coming to child's pose. It will depend on where you are, but find those comfortable positions to anchor yourself.
2. Forcing yourself to exercise in small bouts is your exposure therapy. Start with 10-15 minutes of exercise and slowly work up in time or level of difficulty. Take your time and follow your own plan. Just because a running program says to jump up 5 minutes in one week doesn't mean you have to. Listen to your body and gradually ease your self up to higher intensity training.
3. Practice yoga. No matter what type of exercise you want to return to, add, or improve at, you should include yoga in your routine. Yoga can help balance your activities, calm your mind, and teach you how to breathe with movement. It also doesn't hurt that it helps you improve flexibility and tone your muscles. Yoga comes in all different forms and knowing a few of them can help you in times of stress and when you need a safe exercise alternative.
4. Therapy helps and shouldn't be ignored. Finding the right therapist is key, but after that you can finally figure out what is at the root of your anxiety and work it out. If you haven't done this yet, it's time.
5. Look at the big picture! We are complicated human beings with thoughts, emotions, and histories. When we are struggling with something there are usually multiple factors at play. Take a look at your diet, your activity level, your stress, your sleep, your relationships, etc. Wellness is holistic and it takes time, patience, and your own care team to guide you on your journey to figuring it out.
I'm currently challenging my own anxiety after a year of slowing down and building a personal yoga practice. Now I'm ready to build strength and cardio endurance to find my own exercise balance.
Follow me on my current wellness journey via my blog or on social media @allaboutthatbreath. If you are ready to make changes to improve your health and overcome anxiety, contact me for a free consultation today!