Research has shown that there are many ways to reduce symptoms of anxiety. For example, mindfulness and meditation are commonly used in different therapies and at-home practices for this very reason. Exercise has been found to reduce the symptoms of anxiety, as well. Physical acticity can give you a positive outlet for your energy and even promotes better sleep.
However, exercise itself can also create physical sensations in the body that are similar to anxiety symptoms. These similarities have caused some people to believe that they experience anxiety after working out. Although research been able to show that exercise causes anxiety disorders in individuals, there are some things people can do to cope with the physical sensations they experience post-workout.
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of worry or fear due to a potential threat. In anxiety disorders, thoughts and sensations about worry and fear become constant. It can cause people to become trapped in thought patterns that make them worry about the future or reflect on difficulties in the past.
There are a variety of anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, social anxiety, and specific phobias. It differs from other mental health conditions, such as depression, because it isn't centered around feelings of sadness and loss of interest in activities. However, it can make a person experience other symptoms that can reduce their quality of life.
People with anxiety can experience a wide variety of symptoms. In addition, every person experiences anxiety in different ways. Anxiety symptoms and their levels of severity can differ from person to person and even change over time. Some symptoms of anxiety include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling on-edge
- Headaches, stomach aches, and other body pains
- Overwhelming feelings of worry
Anxiety symptoms can vary depending on the specific type of anxiety disorder that a person is experiencing. For example, people who encounter symptoms of anxiety due to panic disorders may also experience sweating, increased heart rate, tingling, or feelings of impending doom.
Anxiety can impact a person's body and mind. It can change the way people physically feel, how they interact with others, and how they go about their daily life.
People who experience anxiety may refrain from spending time with others due to their symptoms. Also, they may try to avoid situations that could trigger their anxiety or make them feel unsafe or uncomfortable. For example, they might want to skip a family gathering if they're worried about being asked questions that might be stressful.
People with social anxiety might turn down opportunities to hang out with friends, go to parties, or attend other social events where they might have to interact with people they don't know. This could not only impact their potential future relationships, but it can affect their current friendships, as well.
Anxiety and Exercise
A lot of research has investigated the impact of exercise on anxiety. Studies show that engaging in exercise does not only have a preventative effect on the development of anxiety but that it can also reduce anxiety symptoms after a person beings to experience them.
In fact, one systematic review from the journal of Biomedical Health Services Research found that both high-intensity exercise, such as running, and low-intensity exercise, like taking a walk, have mental health benefits. The review included fifteen research studies that monitored participants' exercise and anxiety levels for a period of at least two weeks. These studies included participants who were either diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or who had elevated levels of anxiety.
The results of the review found that both categories of participants experienced statistically significant reductions in their anxiety levels compared to a control group that did not engage in exercise. Participants not only experienced fewer symptoms of anxiety but their sensitivity/responsiveness to those symptoms was also reduced. In addition, high-intensity exercise was found to have greater effects than low-intensity exercise.
Anxiety Before Exercise
Have you ever experienced anxiety before a workout? That's normal. Exercising in a new or public environment, like a gym or a workout class can be daunting. You may be worried about how to work machines correctly or if people are looking at you while you work out. These concerns may be particularly problematic for people with anxiety disorders because they tend to withdraw from social situations as a way of avoiding potential anxiety triggers.
If this resonates with you, you may want to start your workouts at home or at a place where you feel more comfortable, like a park. Try a workout class online or take a walk around your neighborhood. You can gradually work your way up to a gym or in-person exercise class whenever the time feels right for you.
Anxiety During Exercise
Exercise can trigger the body's fight or flight response. When you work out, your whole body is alert and your muscles are activated. Exercise can trigger the release of several chemicals in the body, such as endorphins, adrenaline, and even cortisol.
Cortisol, known as the stress hormone, is released in the body when a person undergoes stress, such as physical activity. It is also released when a person experiences anxiety. During a workout, a person may experience sweating, elevated heart rate, and heavy breathing all of which are also symptoms of anxiety.
For these reasons, exercise and anxiety can feel very similar in the body. This is why a person might feel like they are anxious during or after a workout. The body is responding in a similar way as it does when their anxiety symptoms are triggered. You might not actually experience anxiety post-workout. However, your body might feel like it is.
Anxiety After Exercise
During a workout, the body releases several chemicals that don't immediately go away after your workout is complete. So you might continue to feel anxious post-workout due to the physical effects that exercise has on the body.
However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, research shows that sitting with the physical sensations post-workout, such as an elevated heart rate or feeling out of breath, can actually increase a person's ability to cope with these sensations when they experience anxiety. It helps a person reduce their anxiety sensitivity, which is their tolerance of anxiety symptoms.
In a way, exercise acts as a kind of exposure therapy for individuals with anxiety. It allows people to experience physical symptoms of anxiety in a relatively safe environment where they have some control. For example, they can choose where they work out or when to stop. This allows people to practice their ability to cope with these sensations, and hopefully decrease their sensitivity over time.
How to Manage Workout Anxiety
Workout anxiety can get in the way if you are trying to use exercise to relieve stress or reduce anxiety symptoms. Your fears about working out might create a barrier and prevent you from getting relief from fear in general. But there are some things you can do to cope in these situations.
You can always practice breathwork, whether you experience anxiety symptoms before, during, or after a workout. Research has shown that breathwork can trigger the body's natural relaxation response, reduce a person's stress and cortisol levels, and even increase attention. This means you can use it to experience calming effects when you experience anxiety symptoms. Some types of breathwork to try are:
- Box breathing - Breathe in to the count of four, then hold for the count of four. Breathe out for the count of four, then hold for the count of four. Repeat as many times as you need.
- Lion's breath - Take a deep breath in through your nose. Try and feel your stomach expand instead of breathing more shallowly into your upper chest. Then, strongly exhale through your mouth. You can open your mouth wide and even stick out your tongue to fully exhale.
- Three deep breaths - Breathwork really can be just as simple as three deep breaths. You can close your eyes or place your hands on your lower belly to make sure you are breathing deeply. Take a long exhale in through your nose, and then slowly exhale through your mouth. Continue this pattern until you feel a sense of calm.
Try Low-Intensity Exercises
Low-intensity exercise is a great way to get yourself moving. In addition, since it's a more mild form of exercise, you may experience fewer physical symptoms similar to anxiety. Also, just because you opt for a low-intensity workout, it doesn't mean that you won't experience positive physical and mental health benefits. Some forms of exercise that have been found to have physical and mental health benefits include:
Do a Body Scan
If you want to reduce your anxiety sensitivity, then you may want to try a body scan post-workout. A body scan is a mindfulness exercise that requires a person to bring their attention to the physical sensations in the body. You may notice your heart rate or the feeling of tightness in your stomach. Notice how your body feels by starting at your toes and scanning throughout towards the top of your head.
At first, this process can feel uncomfortable. Especially at first since you will be sitting with your physical symptoms that may feel very similar to anxiety. However, just do your best and take breaks whenever you feel overwhelmed. Over time, you may notice that you are able to better cope with your anxiety symptoms.
Even though exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety in individuals, the physical sensations that come with it can be intense. Sweating, elevated heart rate, and difficulty catching your breath are all physical responses that are similar to anxiety symptoms. Even though you might not actually be experiencing anxiety post-workout, it can certainly feel like it. Find a strategy that works for you and listen to your body. Over time, you should begin to notice improvements in both your mental and physical health.