Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast

What is Exercise-Induced Anxiety and How to Stop it

June 20, 2023 Amanda Armstrong Episode 18
Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast
What is Exercise-Induced Anxiety and How to Stop it
Show Notes Transcript

Episode 18

We've all head that "exercise is good for anxiety" but what if that's generic advice doesn't fit your experience. What if that spin class gives you panic attack? Or just half a mile into your run your start to experience high anxiety? What if it seems like anxiety is making your symptoms worse? You're not alone. Join me in today's conversation around exercise induced anxiety, why it happens, and what you can do about it.  Today's conversation combines my almost 15 years of experience in the fitness space with what I do now as an anxiety & depression coach in a real and informative way. Hit play to learn more!

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We have all heard at some point or another that exercise is helpful for your mental health exercise, decreases anxiety or it, you know, helps you get rid of depression, etc. And there is a mountain of research to back that up. But what If exercise seems to be making your anxiety worse. And this is something that I have come across in my practice and in conversations with people in different places over and over and over again. 


So what do you do when your therapist says, oh, you should exercise and that's gonna help your anxiety and you go to a workout class and you have a panic attack. So first, I want you to know that if this is something that you struggle with, you are not alone. And that is what I want to talk about today. 


Why exercise might be making you anxious or causing panic. What types of exercise are in general worse for anxiety? Or might be better for somebody who has exercise induced anxiety? And what you can do to decrease anxiety when exercising if this is something that you struggle with? So starting with that first question, if exercise is supposed to be so dang good for your mental health, then why do some of you feel so anxious during or after exercise? Why did that spin class give you a panic attack? And this is something that you if you're like, oh, I don't know. It might be worth paying attention to in certain types of exercise, because it might not be all kinds of physical activity that you do. But are there certain things that you do that tend to cause you to feel more anxious in the moment? Or maybe do you notice that your anxiety is higher for hours after or a day after you take a spin class, or go to yoga, or go for a run, just something to maybe pay attention to. 


And the long and short of this is that physically, exercise often feels the same to our body as anxiety symptoms. So think about going for a run, or taking a spin class, the physical changes that happen in your body while you are working out things like shortness of breath, a fast beating heart sweating, mimic really common anxiety symptoms. And it can start to feel physically similar to panic. And it might with this body based memory, take your brain to a place where you go in the mindset of the last time you felt anxious, or the last time you're panicking. So the same way that our mind retains information about past experiences and what we've been through. 


So do our bodies, they log memories of past experiences somatically there are neural explanations as to why right? The same way that we have five senses that perceive our outside world, our internal body also has senses that helps us to be alert, and help the brain to respond when anything feels familiar. So when you start to sweat, your heart starts to beat faster, you start to breathe harder. A lot of times your body goes oh yeah, this is familiar. This is anxiety. So we also have something called our vestibular system. And so this is located in your inner ear. It is often attributed to things like balance, but this helps to modulate movement. And it works in really, really close proximity to your limbic system. And your limbic system controls your body's autonomic nervous system. This is the body's fight or flight command center, as well as emotional responses, memory and learning. And so our vestibular system is definitely involved anytime that we are exercising. And so when you put your body into flight mode, right, whether that is to just run a couple miles or catch a spin class, this can cause the body.


So when you put your body into flight mode by running a couple miles or catching a spin class, or maybe fight mode by going to a kickboxing class, this causes the body to go fast. This changes the state of your body. And so the mind picks up the pace as well. And if you have a history of anxiety, that often looks like racing thoughts, etc. You've heard me say before that your state determines your story. 


And so when we shift the state that our body is in, even if it's intentionally through exercise, oftentimes that reflects to our brain. Ooh, we're activated and our body doesn't always know the difference between a tiger and a workout, right? We're just activated. And this activation feels familiar to anxiety Oh no, our thoughts start to spin, we start to catastrophize, which perpetuates that state. 


So in many ways, our bodies are biologically programmed to respond to the stimuli. So whether there's a lion chasing you or you are doing a bootcamp challenge class, our brains aren't always fully capable of separating out the motion of running from the reality of threat, versus what we do an exercise, which is choosing to opt into this physical activity, to maybe improve our mental health and our physical health. And so this is why some studies have found that in patients with a history of panic disorder, exercise can sometimes spike anxious thoughts. 


So here is a client story. I had a particular client, we will call her J. And she had this fitness class that she loved, she loved it because it checked her social box, she loved the people that were there, she thought that this fitness was fun. And she struggled for a long time to find fitness that she enjoyed that she liked. But she started to notice that there was a few classes in a row where she got to the verge of a panic attack. And it was gradually causing more and more anxiety, each class she went to. And so she came into a session super frustrated, and she was like, why is this happening? Like I love this class, but it's making my anxiety so much worse, like this was something that I was doing to help manage my anxiety and also to help me reach my fitness goals. I like the people there. 


So it makes sense. She's frustrated, she can't do this thing. And so we started to ask some questions, you know, what is it about this class that is making you anxious? And she didn't. And so some of the things we started to explore was, you know, what was it about this class that seemed to be making her anxiety worse? Did it always make your anxiety worse? And she was just now aware of it? She didn't seem to think it did. She's like it was taking this class just fine. Like this is new. And then we looked for strategies on what what did she need to do to be able to enjoy this class again, and we'll come back to J story a little bit throughout this episode. 


So looking at what types of exercise might be worse for anxiety and which ones might be best for anxiety. And the reality is that it really, really depends. It's totally personal. So I've worked with clients whose anxiety got triggered by a run a bootcamp class and I've had other clients who got anxiety doing yoga, and the reaction can be strictly physiological, so anything that feels the same as your anxiety is going to trigger anxiety.


Now, most often exercise induced anxiety is physiological, right, so anything that feels the same as your anxiety symptoms is going to trigger more anxiety. And so a general category of exercise that typically and so for most people, they are most likely to experience anxiety with intense exercise whatever intense looks like for you. Because these cardio oriented activities increase heart rate, blood pressure, in the most similar ways to common anxiety symptoms. But there's also other things about exercise or workout that might trigger anxiety beyond just the physical symptoms. 


So if you are somebody who feels anxiety or panic with exercise, some other things that might come into play that you might want to reflect on, are the workout environment. Does it feel comfortable for you? Do you feel self conscious in this space that you were you're working out in? Are there elements of perfectionism that come in? Do you have fear of judgment around what you're doing with the workout? Another thing to think about is how you feel about or towards your body or exercise in general, that could definitely come into play. Another thing is, do you take a pre workout most of the time pre workouts contain caffeine that could exasperate anxiety. And there are studies that confirm that exercising in a competitive environment can also trigger both psychological and physiological stress response, especially to those prone to anxiety. 


I have often been asked asked why exercise and this I think is the most frustrating thing for somebody who does struggle with exercise induced anxiety is, you know, well, how can one person's lifeline when it comes to their anxiety management creates so many problems for me. Right, my friend swears that exercise cures her anxiety. She is not anxious on days where she goes for a run in the morning. And yet it is the thing that triggers my anxiety every single time. And so there is definitely a relationship between the two.


And I have three theories or scenarios as to why that might be why one person's anxiety Lifeline is another person's anxiety, kryptonite. So the first one and this is one of the most commonly shared is that there's definitely a relationship between exercise and anxiety for a lot of people, but it's often thought that exercise itself likely doesn't induce anxiety or panic, but it's rather those physiological responses that arise during exercise that trigger anxiety. The physical experience of exercising feels familiar to our system as anxiety, therefore, boom. Our system is like we know that fast heartbeat, sweatiness anxiety. So that is number one. And so that may feel true for you? Oh, yeah, it is just as I start to get my heart rate up, like I don't get exercise induced anxiety around walking or yoga. It's just when I get my heart rate up, that feels similar to my system as my anxiety does. That makes sense to me. 


And I have two other theories. One is that when you struggle with anxiety, your nervous system is stuck in activation, it is operating on overdrive. The client I told you about earlier, one of her frustrations was that she had been going to this class, no problem, no extra anxiety for a couple of months. So why now was this class making her more anxious. And after we did some exploring in our coaching sessions together, what we came to see was that her stress load in general, in her life had become more intense lately, there was some conflict with her mom and sister, there was some stressful things at work. So in general, there was just a higher stress load on her nervous system. So her nervous system, the other, you know, 23 hours of her day was much more activated. And so this intense kind of cardio based exercise class just added another layer of activation to an already additionally activated system. And so that seemed to resonate with her and make sense as to why she was exercising, no problem. And now all of a sudden, she was having panic attacks in these exercise classes, was, oh, the rest of my life got really heavy, and got really activated. And this just kind of tipped me over the edge. 


Now, the third theory that I have, is that and so maybe thinking about this for you, have you been able to exercise in the past without anxiety, and now it's coming up? Does your life outside of that workout feel a little bit more stressful? Maybe it's that your system just cannot handle additional activation right now? Or that you don't have the coping skills or the regulation skills with your life stress load to handle the additional activation that happens in your workouts. 


And so for this next theory that I have, right, coming back to this conversation of these two categories of people, the person, person A where exercise helps them discharge, that excess stress and survival energy. Exercise is a really effective management tool for Person A. And then there's Person B, where exercise might add that additional activation basically, for Person B, exercise makes anxiety worse for them. So what is the difference between person A and person B. And here is my theory. Based on working with hundreds of people through this, I started to see kind of these two different categories emerge. So it's possible that for some people, it comes down to what was your first association with those symptoms? 


I'll expand. So for someone like me, I have almost always been in sports. And before I ever really had anxiety, or before my anxiety got bad things like elevated heart rate, fast breathing. excetera, all happened in the context of exercise, which was something that I chose and something that I enjoyed. So when I also got anxiety later in life, there was already a distinction between the activation that I felt in my system that I chose, and that was created with exercise. I was really familiar with this, this felt safe. This felt common for me. So it was easier for me to separate Oh, I'm not in a gym right now, I'm not out on a track right now. So this activation must be anxiety. So even though the experience was similar in my body, I already had this kind of like pre distinction of associating those symptoms, first with exercise versus someone who might have first become familiar with the symptoms via anxiety, instead of exercise. 


So if you first started to experience anxiety, and then maybe started to exercise later in life, or maybe you started to exercise, in response as a way to try to manage your already existing anxiety, I have found that that person that that category of people have been much more likely to experience exercise induced anxiety or panic, since their original body based memory of the symptoms of elevated heart rate, faster breathing, were associated with a stress and anxiety response. So again, maybe reflecting for you, oh, yeah, I've been pretty active, I was in a lot of sports, etc. And exercise is really helpful for me. Versus Oh, yeah, I did have anxiety. And then I, you know, tried to develop a workout habit later in life. So my body based memory first associated the symptoms with anxiety. 


So again, this is just a theory by Amanda but some food for thought. And like I said, this has come from the last couple years of really looking at the patterns that I have noticed amongst clients. And I have found that most people who struggle with exercise induced anxiety developed an exercise habit later in life or as a response to their anxiety. So the crossover of those symptoms was first associated with anxiety. And I would say the only consistent exception that I have found to this have been with a handful of clients who were athletes, they did competitive sports at some point in their life. And they now struggle with exercise induced anxiety, because of the pressure that they still feel around exercise. And this sometimes happens like even decades after they've left the competitive world. So this could be even sports that you did as like a young teenager, but maybe you were in a competitive soccer league, etc. And this likely has to do with the atmosphere and the types of coaches that you had. So if, at any point you had a coach that was belittling or really harsh, then there might be some connections that make exercise feel really high stakes for you, that could increase anxiety around physical activity. 


So again, and I say this often there is never One story, what I am sharing with you are just some trends that I've seen and things that might resonate or feel familiar to you. We have definitely had clients that are outliers to any and all of the theories above. And I am always so so grateful for the opportunity to work with them work with clients, and helping to find the unique root cause and the personalized solution to what they are experiencing. 


So we are at a part of the conversation where I want to talk to you about what you can do if this is something that you're experiencing. Because never exercising again, really is not a great solution. Physical activity is crucial for mental and physical health. And avoiding it isn't a good idea. Because avoidance actually reinforces anxiety, this actually goes for anything that makes you feel anxious if dogs make you feel anxious, avoiding dogs, reinforces anxiety, and so on. 


So again, the right course of action is unique for everyone, but I'm going to make some suggestions, and you can work with them in a way that works for you. So that client J whose story I've been sharing with you remember, this is a fitness class that she loves. But it was to the point where every class, she was going to put her on the verge of a panic attack. And she would notice that when she did try to push herself to go because it's thought it's what she thought she should do for her mental and physical health, etc, that her anxiety was significantly higher in days to follow. 


And so two things were true for her. She loves this class and wants to be able to keep going. But right now this class is making her anxiety worse. And so after a couple of coaching sessions, what she decided to do was to take a break from this class. And the story that best fit her situation was that there were a lot of stressors on her nervous system outside of this class, and that the extra activation of working out at a high intensity was just putting her nervous system on the tipping point. And so she needed more coping skills to manage that extra load the exercise was putting on her nervous system and or for the stress in her life to decrease. And so we talked about taking a full month off. So instead of like, Oh, am I gonna go today? Am I gonna go today? Am I gonna go today? We just gave her nervous system some predictability. And we said, Okay, for the next four weeks, we're going to take a full month off. That's the plan. And instead, your movement is going to be lower intensity. So why don't we try yoga or walking, she had a couple of dogs. And so she did this. 


And after a month, she tried to go back to a couple more classes. And she still felt anxious. And so we said, Okay, two classes. Good experiment. Let's just right now agree, let's take two more weeks off, let's give your system a little bit more time. And when she decided to go back again, we talked through some strategies to manage anxiety, if it showed up in real time. And so the next few weeks of classes, so she did, she took two more weeks off, and then she decided to go back. And that first class, she was like, Oh, I started to feel a little bit anxious. But again, we had the strategies. And what that looks like was, if she started to feel anxiety creeping up during the workout, she'd go to the bathroom. And in the bathroom, she would do some breathing, she would shake it out some specific physiological practices that we identified were helpful for her to release and discharge activation. 


And if while in the bathroom, she wasn't able to get to a place where she felt calm, capable and regulated. Then she just gave her herself permission to be done with the class early and no judgment, right? We did a lot of mindset work around getting to a place where she wasn't going to judge herself for not being able to make it to the end, she realized she was there to support her mental and physical health. And if at any point, it was at the detriment to her mental health, she was just going to hit pause. And so for the next few weeks, she did just that she got really good at being in tune with her body during exercise, she would catch the anxiety kind of creeping up, she would take a break and try to manage it if she could. And if she couldn't, she would just compassionately go stretch, or go take a walk outside around the gym, so that she didn't add any more activation to her system. 


And so it was about probably eight or nine weeks from when we made that first decision to stop going to class and remember again, six of those weeks was almost a full break off. So within just a couple weeks of going back, she was able to make it through multiple classes in a row with minimal to no anxiety and she was so so excited. We gave her system the space to recalibrate. So that's what worked for her was to step back from the particular exercise that was giving her anxiety dial is way, way, way, way back in intensity while she worked on cultivating other anxiety and stress management tools and found some resolution to some of the other drama in her life, and was able to relatively quickly within just a couple months work her way back up to the intensity that she enjoyed. And that was helping her reach both her mental health and physical health goals.


So another thing that I often work with clients on is how to create kind of bookends of regulation for their workouts. So this is some kind of intentional regulation before and after, aka book ending your workout. So with clients before they go into a workout, they take a moment to check in. And if they notice that they're having a high anxiety day, or they're feeling activated in the moment, they make a conscious decision to decrease the intensity of whatever they have planned. And if they're feeling good, then they just kind of take a deep breath or two, and set the intention to stay tuned in and to try to catch anxiety creeping up soon. And then after their workout, instead of kind of finishing that last set, or whatever and jumping right back into the busyness of their life or their to do list, they take three to 10 minutes to intentionally reset and down regulate their nervous system. 


And inside my rise membership, there's actually daily guided workout practices and these change every single month. And that's something that I do in those sessions. So there are 27 minute workouts and then at the end, we take about five minutes together to do some breathing, some stretching to help reset the nervous system. So that you can then take your regulated self back into the busy day or the to do list. And sometimes that even includes some things like vision drills or vestibular drills that I teach in our practice. 


And so it is absolutely possible to turn working out from something that causes anxiety to something that calms it. If this is something that you struggle with, it just may take a unique and titrated approach for you. So some other things that you can explore or experiment are things I mentioned before caffeine intake workout environment, you can do some kind of equal slow deep breaths built in in between sets, or just as it makes sense in your workout. You can adjust intensity, right know when to take a break. If you feel that anxiety or panic creeping up, go grab water, go sit down, go to the bathroom. Sometimes a temporary distraction with music or podcast could be helpful. You could do a reintroduction plan like I did with Jay. And if this is a reoccurring thing for you, especially work with a coach, a therapist or another qualified mental health professional, because there is no advice that can ever take the place of a mental health professional who knows your exact experience. 


So if you are feeling anxious, I highly recommend finding someone you can workshop this with in a personalized way. And as always, this is absolutely something that we do and something I'd love to support you with inside rise my monthly health membership and nervous system healing space. This is actually one of my favorite things to do with clients is to get into the weeds of each of our clients unique experience and circumstances and help them create a personalized approach to work through them. So I'll leave a link in the show notes if you want more details about how I might be able to support you in this work. But finding someone anyone if you need to just get into your unique experience. And so there are a lot of small things you can do to manage exercise induced anxiety.


With what I've shared with you today, you might be able to come up with some great short term or even long term strategies. But if this is a reoccurring problem, I also just want to emphasize that there is something deeper going on and it is so important to do that deeper work to find out what is at the root of your anxiety. There is no cookie cutter or simple fix. However, in a given workout, there are things that you can do to ease anxiety so that you can still reap those benefits of the physical activity without exasperating and increasing anxiety. So our three tangible takeaways from today's conversation:


Number one, the same workout that helps your friend manage their anxiety might exasperate yours. And that is not because of any personal failure, even though I know it feels frustrating. This generic advice of quote, exercise decreases anxiety, or it helps anxiety. It is again, it's generic advice. And it may not be true for you right now for a number of reasons, none of which are because of any personal failure. It could be because the symptoms of exercise act as a trigger, it could be that your nervous system already is at its limit of activation, and any added activation tips, the scale, maybe you had an aggressive soccer coach. And now exercise always feels high stakes. So if you struggle with exercise induced anxiety, I hope that reflecting on things you've heard in today's episode, has has made something make sense for you. And know that you have so many options of how you want to move forward with this. 


Which takes me to tangible takeaway number two, which is that avoiding exercise completely, just reinforces the anxiety. And the research is it is and I cannot iterate this enough, especially somebody who has been a certified personal trainer for well over a decade, I've worked with hundreds of clients in and outside the gym, and a lot of different, both competitive and just general health and fitness ways. Do not avoid exercise just because it makes you anxious. Right? Avoiding exercise just again completely reinforces the anxiety. And the research is clear. Physical activity is supportive for mental and physical health. So I guess this takeaway is just to be willing to experiment and get creative with the type of physical activity that you're doing. Versus just writing this narrative that exercise isn't for me because it makes me anxious. 


Tangible TAKEAWAY NUMBER THREE is get support. If you aren't sure how navigating this goes for you get support, whether that is from us inside our one on one coaching or in my rise membership, whether that's with your therapist or someone else. Just remember that there is no generic podcast advice that can ever take the place of a mental health professional, who knows you who knows your story who is willing to get into the weeds of that story and be creative with you to help you find a personalized solution. Alright, that is it. Thank you for being here, and I'll see you next time. 


Thanks for listening to another episode of The regulate and rewire podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and leave a five star review to help us get these powerful tools out to even more people who need them. And if you yourself are looking for more personalized support and applying what you've learned today, consider joining me inside rise my monthly mental health membership and nervous system healing space or apply for our one on one anxiety depression coaching program restore. I've shared a link for more information to both in the show notes. Again, thanks so much for being here, and I'll see you next time.