A friend asked me via email:
“Jilly how do you just go to the gym and things do you get anxious there or are you past that now am so jealous your so fit.”
Learning to go to the gym despite having social anxiety was definitely something I had to work on over time. I decided a year ago to treat myself to a gym membership. It was something I’ve always wanted to have, and I am lucky enough to have a really nice gym less than a mile from my home…
So while I knew that gym anxiety would be a problem for me, I made it a personal goal to learn how to be able to go to the gym and participate in classes or whatever I wanted to do without suffering from massive anxiety and panic attacks.
As I explained in my last post about self treatment for social anxiety disorder, breaking down any goal into small, manageable tasks and being gentle with yourself while you do it, really helps knock the wind out of anxiety and panic attacks. And this is exactly what I did to overcome my social anxiety at the gym.
My anxiety self help strategy for the gym was to take it slow, start with doing some yoga classes, and gradually work my way up to being in more social (read: social-anxiety producing) situations- including using treadmills and ellipticals in the large open main area of the gym, and finally, learning to go to popular classes like kickboxing and Zumba.
I was very scared the first few times I walked into the gym. I certainly felt all the old fears of all eyes being focused on me, and all that anxiety nonsense. I worked on grounding myself and making sure I was calm before I left the house and then doing it afraid as I walked in- you know, feeling anxious, but acting As If I was calm ad confident. I started by finding an easy yoga class that I could participate in. Practicing yoga for anxiety relief is something I love to do. And I felt that I could use the class to help me calm down about being in the gym. Clever, right?
Honestly, in the beginning it was hard for me to stay calm and focused. I did have some panic attacks in class and it sucked. But since yoga is all about slowing down the breath and relaxing, I felt I was in the absolutely best place for me as a gym newbie. The yoga classes were also taught with the lights turned really low, which made me feel very comforted too. (Gym lights tend to be very bright and harsh, in my opinion). As uncomfortable as it was in the beginning, I never gave in to my urge to bolt from the class.
I continued going to yoga classes for awhile, until I could walk into the gym, do the class, and walk out of the gym with ease. This took a few weeks for me to feel calm- going twice a week to the yoga classes.
The next part of my plan was to learn to be comfortable in the main area of the gym- where all the treadmills, weights, ellipticals, and fancy workout machines are. The challenge of this part of my process was that this area is wide open, often crowded bustling with social activity. I decided to schedule these workouts in 30- 45 minute segments and to go when the gym wasn’t’ super crowded. My gym always seems to be very crowded early in the morning, after school and around 6 o’clock pm- so I avoided going at these times.
Several of my (cliquey, standoffish) neighbors are also members at this gym and running into them there did cause me to have panic attacks. It stunk, but I did notice that by being busy on a stair machine or treadmill or what have you, no one would really hang around chatting for too long. Initially, neighbors would make garden variety small talk, usually “Oh I saw you were going to yoga class…When did you join?.. Do you like it here?…etc”
Garden variety small talk scares the shit out of me, especially when it’s with someone who I think doesn’t really like me (which is the case with these particular neighbors). But I tried to remove any judgments I had about these ladies and take the focus off me taking and instead, ask a few questions of them, like “how are the kids… how long have you been coming here?… doing anything fun this weekend?” etc. etc. and yes, I had questions pre-planned in my head. Hey an anxious girl’s gotta do what an anxious girl’s gotta do.
Rinse and repeat.
I kept up my mini workouts in the main, social area of the gym for a few weeks until it no longer made me anxious. Now it was time for the hardest challenge- taking classes like Kickboxing and Zumba. These classes are notoriously crowded and attended to by other moms- not the serene, quiet yoga people I was comfortable with.
Not going to lie to you, I had some really horrible experiences in the beginning. Sometimes classes would start late and all the people would have to just wait outside the room. Then everyone would break up into small groups and start chatting away. More than one time, 3 of my neighbors would be in their little group and I would feel obligated to join them. And this was a recipe for multiple severe panic attacks. God how I hated this. I tried my best to get to classes just as they were starting to avoid this small talk standing around nightmare, but it didn’t always work.
One time I walked in, saw the class standing around waiting, spotted the trio of neighbors, had a massive, massive panic attack on the spot. The adrenalin rush was horrible and without thinking, I just turned around and headed for the door. On my way to the exit I noticed a spin class starting in another room. So I made a split second decision to just do the spin class instead. I remember I felt like crying the whole time in the spin class because I felt so bad for giving in to my panic feelings. but it was the best I could do at the time.
The road remained bumpy for awhile, but I was determined not to let my stupid anxiety ruin the gym experience for me. So I kept on going, I kept on attending those classes. I kept it up and little by little I had small victories to add up in my head.
Going To The Gym Today…
Now it’s one year later and I can honestly say I *love* going to the gym. My memories of panicking at the gym and struggling with gym anxiety are now something I can look back on and learn from. I still get twinges of nervousness if a class is late and people are standing in groups chatting about nonsense. But for me, anxiety recovery is all about progress, not perfection. I know that I can set my sites on something that freaks me out- like going to the gym. But by being a little creative and planning a gentle, unhurried, step by step approach to it, I can eventually overcome my fears.
I wish you peace,
Fear of going to a public gym is a symptom of social anxiety. See here for a comprehensive list of social anxiety symptoms.