Anxiety Disorders and the Gym

Emily Stamp gives a personal account of her struggle with an anxiety disorder and how that affects her mindset when it comes to exercise. For many people, even those without an anxiety disorder, the gym is a place where all of one's insecurities and fears are brought to the fore; the fear of being looked at, the fear of being judged, the fear of being criticised, the fear of failure. All of this is enough to make one want to turn and run from the automatic doors that lead to the reception. Emily presents her feelings and approach and gives a few titbits of advice for those looking to brave the gym. 

It is difficult to say so in a room full of friends who exercise regularly and with a mum who goes 5 times a week, but the gym terrifies me.

This is not to say that working out is scary or that people are scary, but a room full of people working out makes me shake; at best I feel physically sick and at worst a panic attack sets in. I now cannot go to gym classes without a friend and the idea of facing a mirror during Zumba worries me. If I go running it will be at 5am – when there are the fewest people around but it is still light - and never in the evening as more people are likely to be out and about.

My struggle comes from how I perceive others. Regardless of their body type, how physically fit they are (although it is worse when everyone looks like a model), when I am in a gym I remain in constant fear of people watching me, of them thinking I am doing something wrong. Anxiety kicks in and this acute stress response, this hyperarousal, has me ready to flee.

I get stage fright, which is only exacerbated by having generally high anxiety levels. I wish I had recognised this at age thirteen, when I could not give a ‘proper’ reason for why I did not want to ice skate in front of people or answer questions in class. Both of these made me nauseous. This corresponds to my gym anxieties; the idea of being watched terrifies me, so the idea of people glancing across the room, or perhaps even settling their gaze on me, is enough to make my plans of regular gym-going disintegrate.

We live in a world that tells us to go to the gym, that it is easy to lose a few pounds by working out, that there is something for everyone and that people of all sorts go to the gym. Yes, there are multiple gym machines that suit different people and, yes, working out does contribute to losing fat. However, until I get a gym room in my house, away from everyone, the gym is not for me. This is something I avoid bringing up with most of my friends, regular gym-goers without my anxious baseline. Yet the more I speak to others the more I am aware that I am not the only one afraid of putting myself in that position. Many of my friends also have to go with others, feel bad about themselves at the gym or know that if they do not keep going they will get nervous again.

While I cannot promise to take my own advice, find a friend to go to the gym with, who will stay by your side the whole time. Make them distract you by talking. You could also find out when your gym is least busy (e-mail in if you want to avoid human interaction) or sign up to classes with a friend and hide at the back. Find a way to exercise that you enjoy, be it yoga in your room, a boxing class or a hike and do not worry about needing to like the gym. Exercise is personal and not everything will work for everyone, so take gym going at your own pace, instead of trying to keep up with everyone else.