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Why Do I Feel Anxious While Exercising?

Amanda Gregory, LCPC, EMDR

Isn’t exercise supposed to be a good thing? You are constantly being told by doctors, loved ones, therapists, and the media that you need to exercise in order to receive a variety of health and psychological benefits. If this is true (and it is) then why is exercise causing you to feel anxious?

Physical Reactions. Your body’s natural reaction to exercise can be similar to your body’s reaction to anxiety. These similar physical reactions include sweating, fatigue, rapid heartbeat, increased or shallow breathing, shaking, and muscle aches. You may feel anxious because your body is reacting in the same way that it would if you were to feel nervous or panicked without exercise. For example, since a rapid heartbeat is a common occurrence when you feel nervous or panicked, you might feel nervous or panicked as a result of your increased heartbeat when you exercise. So, you might feel anxious when you exercise because your brain is interpreting natural body reactions to exercise as anxiety.

Improving Self-Worth. Exercise can improve your self-worth and this process can create anxiety. If you experience low self-worth over a period time, you internalize it. Low self-worth feels comfortable. When you start to work on improving your self-worth, you may feel uncomfortable, or even scared. If you believe that you are not good enough, weak, unattractive, or undeserving, exercise can start to challenge these beliefs. Anytime we challenge a core part of ourselves, we can feel uncomfortable and anxious.

Physical or Medical Trauma. If you’ve experienced physical or medical trauma, exercise can remind you of these experiences. For example, if you once had an illness that caused you a great deal of physical pain, then the muscle soreness you experience after exercising might remind you of the soreness that you experienced during or after the illness. Anxiety due to trauma can often occur unknowingly.

Disconnected from Your Body. If you often feel disconnected from the sensations in your body, exercise can help you to reconnect. Being connected to your body allows you to better manage your physical and emotional health. However, this reconnection can cause anxiety, as you will begin to notice various sensations in your body that you aren’t used to noticing. You might not know if these sensations are normal and you might interpret them as something to fear.

Self-Judgment. Are you judging yourself negatively during or after exercise? If so, this could be causing you anxiety. Here are a few examples of thoughts that indicate self-judgment: “I should have done better,” “I have no stamina,” “Other people are fitter than I am,” “I’m fat,” “I’ll never meet my fitness goals.” Self-judgment can not only cause anxiety but can also sabotage your ability to exercise effectively.

Embracing New Behaviors. If you are new to exercise, it might feel odd or uncomfortable. Whenever we try new activities or attempt to acquire new habits, we can feel anxious because they’re unfamiliar. When these activities begin to feel more familiar or even routine, we tend to notice a decrease in the anxiety we experience as a result of doing them. The key is to continue new activities consistently over a period of time.

The Environment. Do you feel comfortable in your exercise space? You can exercise in a variety of environments, such as gyms, parks, studios, or your own home. If you’re fearing judgment from others, are concerned about safety issues, or have any other concerns about your environment, this could cause you anxiety.

Exercise can cause anxiety, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t exercise. It’s important to remember that exercise can be a great method for managing your anxiety. There are many things that you can do to address anxiety that occurs as a result of exercising.

If you experience anxiety you could benefit from participating in counseling. Symmetry Counseling provides individual counseling which can help you to lean to manage anxiety. Contact Symmetry Counseling to schedule an appointment.

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