You’ve been told over and over that exercise will make your anxiety problem better, yet somehow you find that if you exercise it makes you feel WORSE.  This can make you feel like your anxiety is worse than everybody else’s, or special, or untreatable.  You way want to exercise but find yourself avoiding it based on how you feel when you engage in activity.

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What’s Going On Here?

Fortunately, this is an easy situation to unpack and improve.  You have concluded that exercise makes your anxiety worse simply because exercise causes changes in your body that mimic all the most common anxiety symptoms.  When you exercise you sweat, and breathe hard, and your heart beats faster, and you experience a chance in muscle tone.  This feels like a panic attack feels and you are conditioned to respond to these sensations with fear.  What may start as an accelerated heartbeat can quickly morph into a full blown panic attack as you add fear on top of fear, triggering an entire array of anxiety and panic symptoms.  The sequence is simple and easy to understand.

  1. You exercise.
  2. You misinterpret the natural response of your body.
  3. You go into fear mode.
  4. You create anxiety and panic where none is required to exist.

I am not saying that it doesn’t feel scary and uncomfortable.  It most certainly does.  That’s not a question.  What I am saying is that you may be afraid and uncomfortable when you exercise, but that doesn’t mean you are unsafe.  This is simply a conditioned inappropriate response to a particular set of natural, harmless, predictable sensations.

This is just part of some bad brain habits!

What Do I do About It?

First, you accept that what is happening is a cognitive issue an not a physical issue that indicates danger that must be avoided.  This is critical.  Once you’ve made peace with this idea, the next step is to accept that you MUST engage in exercise in a controlled way in order to learn by experience that you do not need to fear the associated sensations.  Exercise is an EXCELLENT form of interoceptive exposure!  Let me clarify that I am not necessarily talking about elite athlete level exercise here.  You do not have to run marathons, climb mountains or deadlift 700 pounds to make progress.  ANY activity counts, so get rid of any preconceived notions of what “real” exercise is before you start.

Why Should I Do That?  It Sounds Scary and Hard!

As with many aspects of recovery from an anxiety disorder, it will be scary (especially at the start), and it will be hard word.  It is well worth it however.  Solving the exercise problem means de-sensitizing yourself to anxiety symptoms in general, which is a GIANT leap forward toward recovery.  Using exercise to teach your brain not to fear a rapid heartbeat (for example) in the gym is also teaching your brain not to fear a rapid heartbeat while driving on the highway.  Improving your response to anxiety symptoms will boost your overall confidence, and engaging in a graduated program of exercise as a form of exposure will provide you with a sense of accomplishment. Naturally, moving more comes with all kinds of health benefits, and engaging in regular activity is often a “gateway” to re-engaging overall with things you enjoy or previously enjoyed.  There are many reasons to undertake this challenge.

Great!  What’s Next?

When you’re ready, check out part 2 of this short series where I will walk you through the nuts-and-bolts of going from completely inactive to a regular exercise program.

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Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash



Founder and host of The Anxious Truth podcast. Graduate student and therapist-in-training. Author and educator on the topic of anxiety disorders and anxiety recovery. Former anxious and depressed person.

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