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Addressing Exercise-Induced Anxiety

Sometimes, a client of mine has anxiety attacks. He JUST called me up. He was at the end of his workout and he was fatigued on a set, his heart rate jumped, and this triggered his anxiety. He felt his heart begin to bang in his chest, and this triggered a spiral of negative and uncontrollable thoughts. Luckily for us both, he stepped outside the gym and called me in hopes that I could help talk him into finishing his workout. Our short but pointed discussion was helpful to us both.

I asked him if he felt his heart pounding FIRST and then reacted to that physical stimulus with mental anxiety, and he said yes. Then I broke the situation down for him as best I could by telling him a short story about my wife.

Despite a resting heart rate below 50 bpm, a healthy body fat level, and solid nutrition and exercise habits for many years, she had high blood pressure and anxiety. It was only four months ago that she went to a new doctor who told her that birth control pills can cause high blood pressure, so she went off the pill. Within TWO WEEKS, her blood pressure dropped within the healthy range AND HER ANXIETY DISAPPEARED. She literally changed overnight into the wonderful woman I had met many years ago and left her nervous and anxious persona behind. After experiencing this, I made a stark realization that her anxiety was caused by the FEELING of her blood pumping at high pressure through her veins. She used to tell me that she thought she was going to have a heart attack at a young age. She said this frequently, and she meant it, because she FELT it. This feeling CAUSED her to view the world through an anxious lens!

I explained this story to my client and highlighted the fact that one’s physiological state can CAUSE mental anxiety. Feeling a high heart rate during exercise can stir up a panic attack or thoughts that are cognitively linked with anxiety, which further influences the pounding in one’s chest, and the experience spirals out of control. AND the reverse is also common – that one’s mental anxiety can cause a physiological response (high heart rate, pounding chest). However, for the purposes of this article, we will just focus on the former example.

Once my client understood that he was not properly breathing, which caused his heart to work harder to supply his working body with oxygen to finish his set, then he went back in with a newfound confidence – that he could control his physiology and also exercise-induced anxiety by focusing on strategies like slowing down, focused breathing, or taking a complete rest break. He successfully finished his workout and felt that we made a breakthrough!

I have coached a handful of athletes and clients that have experienced this. A powerful understanding can be learned here – that anxious thoughts can cause a body response, AND a body response can cause anxiety. If you experience either of these, knowing WHICH type of anxiety (mind -> body, OR body -> mind) can prove helpful. You may be able to step outside yourself when you are experiencing an anxiety attack and assess the situation. Ask yourself “which type of experience am I having?” If you are experiencing the body -> mind version, this can be caused during exercise by physical fatigue, too high of a heart rate, and improper breathing! Sometimes you can address this simply by recognizing IN THE MOMENT what is occurring, and then IMMEDIATELY apply the fix – stop, breathe, rest, and tell yourself that your body is low on oxygen and causing your mind to freak. Once you have control of your breath, your heart rate will come back down to a happy level, and you can finish your workout!

The second version, mind -> body anxiety is a different beast. Perhaps I will write another article on mental strategies that you can learn and practice to control this second type of anxiety. For now during physical activity, start with learning to control your heart rate, breathing, and eventually, your anxiety.

Thanks for reading! Good luck.

-Fritz Nugent

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