Anxiety and its Crippling Effects on Exercise

Beth Mhairi Webster shares a personal story of how her anxiety damaged her self-confidence in sports and exercise. She reflects on how changes in her lifestyle have vastly improved her wellbeing and confidence.

Sports and exercise have always caused me a lot of stress and embarrassment, and at times, a great deal of anxiety. At school, physical education (P.E.) was one of the only subjects I found really tricky, and I had poor relationships with my P.E. teachers who sensed my reluctance, always claiming that I “didn’t try hard enough”.

And truth be told, they were probably right - I didn’t try very hard. It was just a subject I didn’t enjoy as a skinny teenager who was desperate to put on weight. Exercise was my enemy, as it burned off any calories I was desperate to hold on to my frame.

All my doubts and worries about exercise stem from my childhood experiences. When you’re constantly told you’re “useless” at something, you have no reason not to believe it, especially when you’re a kid with a malleable brain. So, it’s unsurprising that as I got older I just avoided sport and exercise altogether; albeit with the exception of a few attempts at yoga (boring) and the gym (an anxious person’s hell).

Things changed when I met my boyfriend - who is the coach and president of a local dodgeball club. Dodgeball is still a ‘grassroots’ sport, one that prides itself on being accessible to everyone of all abilities. Now I was quite happy watching from the sidelines as a glorified cheerleader, but eventually I was persuaded to give dodgeball a shot.

And… I absolutely hated it. I was just as uncoordinated and completely useless as I used to be with physical activity. I could have cried from sheer embarrassment of another poor attempt at sport. With all the extra adrenaline shooting around my body, my anxiety levels were through the roof and I was even more prone to anxiety attacks than usual.

It’s taken me over a year to get past those feelings and admittedly, I do still get anxious from time to time. I’m not really sure why I’ve stuck with dodgeball out, but perhaps it’s because the sport is a passion of my boyfriend’s and I want to be involved in something he loves so much. Perhaps it’s the support of the other dodgeballers, or perhaps it’s my sheer stubbornness to prove wrong everyone who has ever told me I was terrible at sport.

This year, however, I have made some huge progress with my anxiety and confidence - and I have my personal trainer (PT) to thank. I’ll admit, she is one of my best friends so I’m totally biased! But after a couple of months of personal training, my mental and physical health, strength and confidence have all improved massively. I would never have believed that an hour a week working out would have such an impact on all aspects of my life.

Every week, I’m trying something new, building on what I was doing last week, and constantly improving. I have my PT there to watch my form, giving me the confidence that I won’t hurt myself in the long run - something I was always worried about at the gym. She’s there for motivation, making sure my workouts are tailored towards me and also for playing dodgeball.

If I had realised how hand-in-hand a sport and personal training were, I’d have started it a long time ago. The best thing about having PT sessions is that I haven’t had an anxiety attack yet. I’m constantly being challenged with things I don’t think I can do, but I’m calm enough to give everything a shot and ask for help if something’s more difficult.

It almost seems counter-productive to keep continuing activities that make your anxiety worse. I have wanted to give up with dodgeball a number of times, but it makes me quite proud knowing how far I’ve come and how many obstacles I’ve overcome with sheer perseverance.

The more confident I get with working out, the more confident I get at dodgeball. I’m backing myself a lot more and just going for things, when in the past I’d have preferred to let others take the lead. The more I play, the more I’m understanding that although I didn’t start with a natural affinity for dodgeball or exercise like others did, it was my confidence that has been my adversary from the start.

Strength and agility and tactical thinking can all be improved - but without any confidence, I was always going to fail. I’m by no means a talented sportswoman (and probably never will be!) but the long-term benefits of sport and exercise, outweigh the short-term anxiety, which I hope will continue to become more manageable over the years.

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