Anxiety and Working Out

Oct 04, 2020

As a therapist, I hear stories of people who have struggled with anxiety for years without ever knowing it. How does that happen? With an estimated 300 million people who identify as “anxious” it feels like we as a society should be pretty good at knowing if we have it and what we should do about it. 


Unfortunately, for most of us who struggle with anxiety, it is the waters we have been raised in. It is kind of like growing up in a chaotic family and finding ourselves repeating those patterns in our adult relationships. It feels comfortable because it is all we’ve ever known and our central nervous system deems it as “normal.” Might I suggest that anxiety is extremely common as the primary hormone cortisol is needed in our system but when it becomes flooded or simply overwhelms our system, that is when it is no longer considered normal. 


How can we possibly know anything different than what has been our reality for as long as we can remember? 


Unless something goes wrong. 


Until something happens that I can no longer cover up. 


When I feel exposed and have people reflecting back to me how “common but not normal” it all is. 


I remember several years ago when I coached at a local CrossFit facility and one of our members at the time, who was pretty new to working out, stepped outside in the middle of the workout. Following my gut,  I walked over to him and realized that he was struggling to breath but not the kind of out-of-breath that happens when you engage in physical activity -- the kind of out-of-breath that happens when you have a panic attack. 


Thankfully, I was able to help him control his breath, de-escalate him, and helped him to return to a place of calm so he could re-engage in physical activity. However, this isn’t the story of some who struggle with anxiety. For many, their panic attacks leave them on the floor for several minutes or they end up running out of the facility and into their car as fast as humanly possible. 


Whatever may be the case, there are some helpful things to know about your body when it comes to engaging in physical activity for men and women who struggle with anxiety. 


What You Need To Know About Anxiety 

Anxiety isn’t bad and you aren’t broken if you struggle with it. In fact, everyone experiences some levels of anxiety in their daily life. Cortisol, the body’s “stress hormone,” most commonly linked with anxiety, is an extremely important hormone in the overall makeup of the human body and experience. Without getting too nerdy, cortisol kicks in when our fight-flight-or-freeze response is triggered. In short, cortisol is released into the system to get us moving away from perceived danger or stress -- it helps us survive. 


Unfortunately, when there are elevated levels of cortisol running around in our body it can lead to some pretty devastating results by way of lowering our immune system, causing sickness, injury, and the inability to return to a state of calm. In essence, elevated cortisol levels keep us perpetually in a state of fight-flight-or-freeze and we were never meant to live in such a hypervigilant state. Eventually, your body is like YO I AM SO TIRED and it will begin to shut down if you are not able to regulate yourself -- it will just do it for you and it usually doesn’t care too much about what important thing you might be doing. 


Cue panic attacks. This is one way that our bodies let us know that something is super scary, very dangerous, and we need to pay attention. Oftentimes, it originates in our minds by way of fixating on a particular thing or feeling triggered. It can also happen in real time if you experience a traumatic event.


Okay, that makes sense. Anxiety acts as a type of “warning” much like the check engine light on your car. When that goes off, it usually doesn’t bode well if we ignore it for days, weeks, months...our anxiety isn’t much different. 


What happens, though, when you’re in the middle of working out and you have a panic attack? You might not be feeling particularly anxious while you deadlift so...? Well, interestingly enough, your body doesn’t know the difference between an elevated heart rate and cortisol pumping through your body because of perceived danger and an elevated heart rate and cortisol pumping through your body because you’re vigorously working out. 


That is your brain’s job and if you live disconnected from your body and what you’re experiencing and feeling...Well, then you may experience panic attacks while you’re out on a morning run or deadlift at the gym or in the middle of a spin class. Here are 3 ways you can ease anxiety. 


Staying Connected To Your Body

  1. Check In: Some people find it helpful to spend the first 5 minutes of their morning brain dumping exactly how they’re feeling. Others find it helpful to do a “high” from their day and a “low” from their day with their partner/kids/coworker. Whatever works for you, figure out a way to actively check in with yourself at LEAST once throughout your day. 
  2. Be aware: Learning to be connected to your body literally involves you checking in with how your body is feeling. When you wake up, spend a moment stretching, flexing your toes, stretching your hamstrings, bending down and touching your does it feel? What is tight? Be mindful when you move.
  3. Meditation/Stillness: Of course, I’d mention this one, right? Whatever it needs to look like for you I don’t really care but slowing down for even 10 seconds to notice what it feels like to breathe would go a really long way. Some people enjoy this at the beginning of their day while I encourage others to set up an alarm 3x a day to go off that asks them to stop what they are doing in that moment and take 2 deep breaths. How many of us are not even mindful or aware of our breathing in the midst of our work day? 


What To Do If You Have A Panic Attack At The Gym

Here are some helpful things to be aware of should you ever find yourself feeling extremely anxious and on the verge of a panic attack while working out…

  1. Be Curious: Can you even notice when you are beginning to feel that anxiety rising? If so, GOOD. You can’t self-correct if you can’t first self-observe. If you struggle with this, schedule a free 30min session with one of our anxiety counselors and we’ll help you out!
  2. Ground Yourself: When you begin to notice that your anxiety is rising, begin to name where you are, what you see, what it smells like, are you safe? And lastly -- what do I need? Will I be better served if I take a quick break, have a sip of water and walk around outside so I can then assess if I can return or not? Can I push through and stay steady? What do I need most in this moment? 
  3. Slow Down: Depending on what you are engaged in at the moment, slow it down. Find your breath. Ground yourself. What are you feeling? What is overwhelming you? Remember, your body responds to stimuli and doesn’t know if you are working out or if you are incredibly anxious and is just doing it’s job. It’s YOUR responsibility to ask what you need and to honor your body.


There may be times where you are best served by slowing down, stopping altogether and calling it a day. I remember when I began to feel nauseous in a workout (which is very rare for me) and incredibly overwhelmed that I stopped and went outside and sat down. I closed my eyes and began to do box breathing (see below). I got up, walked around and began to stretch to center myself. If I hadn’t honored my body and my experience of having just lost my friend to a sudden brain tumor, I would have pushed my system into a place it didn’t need to go. 


For many, having a posture of kindness and care is extremely difficult. I’d encourage you to explore why you are willing to extend kind and care to others but not to yourself? Why are you unwilling to give yourself and your body what it needs in those moments? What does it bring up for you that you want to avoid, ignore and push down? 


Your body is always giving you feedback. You just have to listen. 


Cheering You On, 




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Olivia Pelts is the owner of Sunshine City Counseling where she has the joy of working with some of the best mental health therapists in the city of St. Petersburg, FL. One of the greatest joys for Olivia is working with men and women who feel lonely and disconnected in relationships to find lasting meaning and connection. When she is not therapizing (is that a word? We don’t know), she can be found paddle boarding with her family and best friends or eating at some of her favorite restaurants in the city. 


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