If Exercise Causes Panic Attacks For You, A Therapist & A Personal Trainer Explain How To Cope
Conventional wisdom will tell you that exercising will help reduce your anxiety. Conventional wisdom ain't wrong — but it's also not quite that simple. When exercise jacks up your heart rate and boosts your adrenaline, it can feel like the symptoms of a panic attack. For many, coping with exercise-induced anxiety is a necessary prerequisite to even thinking about getting a workout in.
Exercise and other activities that mimic panic attack symptoms can be scary for people who already live with anxiety, says clinical psychologist Dr. L. Kevin Chapman, Ph.D., founder and director of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. By exposing yourself to small bouts of exercise, he says, you can convince your body that your heavy breathing and high adrenaline aren't bad things.
In other words, exercising for the first time in a while might accidentally trick your brain into thinking you're in trouble and make you panic. But the more often you work out, the more your brain will be able to say, "OK, this is safe." Once your brain knows you're good, you can actually start enjoying your workout.
"When I was having recurring panic attacks, I found that I had to limit the amount of time I was exercising for that reason," says Luca Page, founder of Radically Fit Oakland, a body-positive community gym. But how do you get past the anxiety that your cardio heart is actually a heart attack to make your workout something you look forward to?
1. Start Slow
I know from experience how terrible it is to have complete breakdowns from anxiety in the gym. If you know you're prone to panic attacks (or anxiety in general), you don't have to go anywhere to get a strong workout. From at-home yoga sessions to high-intensity workouts you can do in your living room, YouTube has a great variety of exercise videos that you can pause whenever you want to. This way, no one but your cat will see you attempting a headstand.
"The more you confront situations and symptoms that you perceive as threatening, the more you learn a new, non-threatening association in your brain," Dr. Chapman tells Bustle. "Once you recognize this necessary principle, physical exercise often becomes perceived as a strategy to relieve anxiety rather than a contributor to it."
Until your brain starts recognizing your safety, though, it's alright to take it at your own pace.
2. Choose Your Fighter Carefully
Exercise doesn't have to be about going super hard. If you know that you're likely to panic when your heart rate goes up because it will remind you of a panic attack, you can stick to workouts that will build your strength and endurance and keep your heart rate chill. Barre workouts, yoga, and Pilates, as well as relaxing walks and low-intensity cycling, also work to kickstart your endorphins. If, on the other hand, quiet makes you panic (AKA, if you're me), you might opt for a head-clearing run instead.
3. Keep Ice Water On Hand
Running cold (and I mean cold) water on your face and neck or holding an ice cube in your mouth and in your fists can calm your sympathetic nervous system, which turns your panic response on or off.
While you're running outside, you might not have immediate access to hopping into a freezing shower like you do when you're home, but making sure your water bottle is filled with plenty of ice cubes can help a lot. Whether you take a cube out and let it melt in your mouth or whether you take soothing gulps of the ice cold water, your parasympathetic nervous system should get the message that it's safe to relax. Once your body knows it's not going to get hurt, you might find that you really enjoy all those hills.
4. Bring Something Soothing
One of my personal trainer pals noticed that I was panicking in the gym one day. He sprinted into the locker room and brought me a vial of lavender essential oils to smell. Suddenly, I could breathe again. For other folks, keeping your favorite pug-walking-a-stroller .gif on your phone might be what you need to combat an impending anxiety attack. For still others, it might be a stim toy or a playlist or the latest episode of Stumptown. Whatever your go-to is when you're feeling anxious, make sure it's in your gym bag (or nearby when you're working out at home).
5. Keep Hydrated
While being dehydrated won't make you have an anxiety spiral by itself, staying hydrated can help you combat anxiety's effects. That's especially important if you're already sweating from a workout.
If hydration is a particular concern for you, make sure your gym drink of choice has some electrolytes in it. The more stable your body is feeling, the more likely it'll be to help you keep calm.
6. Write Yourself A Note
Whether it's a note on your phone, a physical letter, or a recorded message to yourself, give yourself reminders that you're doing a great job.
"Be mindful of the way you're talking to yourself in those moments of panic," Page suggests. It can help to practice what to say to yourself if your body seizes up. "Be super clear with yourself about the size of a panic attack and be able to go through the motions when it's happening," they say. "Step outside of yourself and say, 'OK, my heart rate is going up right now because I just did these exercises and it's going to come down in a couple minutes."
Whatever kind of affirmations work for you, toss them into your anti-anxiety gym bag.
7. Be Gentle With Yourself
Whether you're alone in your living room or in the gym trying to work out, if anxiety kicks in and won't leave, do whatever you need to do to calm down, including stopping your workout completely. There is nothing that says you need to keep pushing past the point of your own comfort, and it's completely valid to call it a day even if you've only done your first down dog. "Let your ego sit down and be kind to yourself," Page says. Your workout will still be there if and when you want to try again.