Can Working Out Increase Anxiety?

By now, you’ve probably heard of the near-magical good that exercise can do for you.

Regularly working out can help your body become healthier and stronger, plus it kicks those natural painkillers called endorphins into gear so your mood is boosted too. When we move more, we sleep better and then feel better as a whole. There are countless studies that have found exercise to reduce anxiety and stress, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

But for some of us, hitting the gym can actually induce anxiety. Working out isn’t a feel-good sweat session, it’s something much more nerve-wracking.

If you’re not present and focused on improving your mental and physical well-being while you’re exercising, it can make you feel anxious and not good enough, Michigan-based therapist Ginger Houghton said.

“It’s incredibly important to approach exercise and movement from more mindful, relaxed and open place to make sure it’s not contributing to problems.”

Your fitness mindset

If exercise stresses you, you’re not weird. There are many reasons why working out can cause anxiety.

Quote graphic stating "Often, we forget to have fun when we're exercising." by Connie Habash“A lot of what determines the mental and emotional benefits of exercise is how you are going about it and with what kind of mindset,” psychotherapist Connie Habash said.

Let’s say you sign up for yoga classes with the goal of finally unwinding. However, if you stay in your head all class, thinking about work and all the other things on your plate, your anxiety will surely stick with you. You might even leave more stressed than you were when you got there.

This mindset principle also applies to people with perfectionistic traits who get performance anxiety because they compare themselves to others and even their past selves. As a result, they push themselves as hard as possible, sometimes too hard.

Setting unrealistic short-term goals — like wanting to lose weight or fit into a smaller size by a certain date — can also cause anxiety. Framing exercise in this way can lead to you chastising yourself for not working out hard enough or missing sessions. You might also feel like a failure if you don’t hit your weight loss goal, even if it was overly ambitious to begin with.

Be kind to yourself

Anxiety around working out can also be closely tied to self-esteem and body image.

It can be tough for some people to attend group classes, run in public or even just be in the gym without feeling judged for their appearance.

At its most intense, those with eating disorders can get trapped in a cycle of feeling anxious over burning the calories they’ve consumed. It’s important to remember that everyone’s fitness journey is different — and not defined by one body type.

“Often, we forget to have fun when we’re exercising,” Habash said. “Invite more playfulness, laughter, and creativity into your activities.”

Be compassionate with yourself. Let yourself relax and don’t push through any pain for the sake of results.

Exercise can be a way of getting to know your body and is a valuable form of a self-care. If you’re not ready to throw yourself into a new fitness routine, start small. Bring a friend the first few times you go to a class or buy workout gear that helps you feel good in your skin.

A mental health professional can help you sort through stress and anxiety around exercise. They can help you develop coping mechanisms, like grounding exercises, to help you stay focused on the present without expectations.

[ICYMI: How to Find the Right Therapist for You]

Make this about you

If you’ve tried time and time again but yoga or running just doesn’t make your body feel good, then stop forcing that workout on yourself.

“The reality is that each of us is very different from both a physical constitution — what’s best for your body based on genetics, body type, overall physical ability — and energetically — how much energy we can take in or exert on a daily basis,” health coach Kristen Rice said.

Certain workouts can actually hurt you more than help you, especially if you go too hard. People who are more sensitive, both physically and energetically, should monitor how they feel after high-intensity workouts to make sure they’re not adding anxiety by fueling their fight or flight system, Rice said.

If that sounds like you, explore yoga, pilates or barre classes that don’t push your body to the limits. It might take some trial and error, but it’s worth finding out what kind of movement makes you feel good.

Kathleen Wong

Kathleen Wong is a Honolulu-based writer with bylines in The Cut, Broadly, Mic, Mashable and more.