The gym can be intimidating. A lot of people with anxiety have trouble going to the gym because it makes them anxious. It might not even about the heaviness of weights, it likely has to do with being in an environment that is at first unnatural and uncomfortable.
Follow these tips to make your gym experience natural and comfortable. Then, who knows, the gym might end up being your home away from home.
1. Go at off-peak hours
This is a tough one if you work 9 to 5 but if you can swing it, go at a quieter time to the gym. The busy hours are in the morning before work, lunchtime, and after work in the afternoons. Student gyms are a bit different. Typically, students sleep in so they go around 10 am and after classes at about 4 pm. 24-Hour gyms are for the crazy people who work out at 2 am.
Regular gyms: before 7:30 am / between 9 - 11 am / between 2 - 4 pm / after 7 pm
24 hour gyms: between 9 - 11 am / between 8 pm - 5 am
Student gyms: before 10 am / between 2 - 4 pm / after 7 pm
2. Plug In
Get some good headphones and listen to something engaging. You can jack up that music to a high volume or listen to a podcast. Personally, I think podcasts are too distracting for weight-training but perfect for torture—oops, I mean cardio.
The bigger the headphones, the more bad-ass you look (in my opinion.)
I believe that a person comes to life when they smile. Whether it's in the gym or anywhere else that's public, once I smile at someone I make eye contact with, they most likely smile back. If they don't, then that's a different story . . .
In the weight room, there're a lot of large grunting guys and that might be intimidating to workout next to. I used to think these men were serious, maybe a bit grumpy, and saw me as an inexperienced beginner. But then I started to smile at them if we made eye contact and they'd smile back. It changed their appearance completely and it changed my attitude towards them—just by seeing their smile. Now when I go to the gym, I see a lot of regular people and we will make a smile or nod in acknowledgement and then go back to our business. It's okay to be friendly at the gym, it doesn't mean you're going to get stuck in an awkward conversation.
The only issue is this extremely subjective concept of "flirting". Everyone has their own opinion of what flirting is and yes, maybe smiling at a stranger will make them think you're into them. Don't worry about that.
Listen—people can be friendly without being flirty. We're all human beings. We shouldn't put a limit on friendliness.
4. Bring a buddy
Go to the gym with a friend. It'll make you feel calmer and motivate you to go on those days you might not feel up to it. If you do something you might find embarrassing, like falling off a treadmill, you can just laugh with your friend about it.
Your friends can spot you. Having a spotter can motivate you to go harder and knock out more reps because you won't be afraid of failing. If I had a buddy spot me during bench press, I would probably be a lot further along right now. I'm just scared of getting trapped under the bar!
5. Book a personal training session
If you're new to the gym, new to the equipment, and/or new to weightlifting, I highly recommend booking a private session with a personal trainer. Just once, or maybe twice, so they can show you around and help you perfect your movements. You'll get an understanding of your surroundings and feel confident enough to do these moves on your own. Also, it just feels better to know someone at the gym, especially an employee.
6. Take a breather
If you find yourself on the verge of an anxiety attack, take a breath, collect your things, and sit down in the locker room. The worst you could do is grab all your things and leave as fast as you can. I've done this before and I've left embarrassed and disappointed in myself. When I learned to just take a breather in the locker room, I could calm down/check my phone to distract my mind and then, when I felt ready, I could go back out there and finish my program.
My anxiety used to be so bad that I was afraid of barbells because of how long it would take to take off the plates if I was having a panic attack. I couldn't just drop and go. I once had planned out my gym day by putting my things in a locker room closer to the weight room so if I needed to escape, it'd be quicker. This locker room didn't have pin-pad locks and I didn't have a padlock. I did a great workout and I didn't have a panic attack. I went to the locker room afterwards and my purse was stolen with my wallet and keys in it. That was a painful punch in the face to tell me how much power I was giving my anxiety.
Make sure to also take a long-ass breather between sets. Like 2-3 minutes, until your heart rate calms down. If you're moving your whole body from bent over position to standing, or bending down to pick a weight up or put it down, you could get lightheaded. If you have a low iron deficiency like I do, you're definitely going to get lightheaded. Don't panic. Just breathe. Sit down and breathe. Stand up slowly and breathe.
It's just you verses you
7. Cognitive behavioral therapy, baby
Your thoughts play tricks on you. "Everyone in here is watching me. God I look so pathetic. This is barely any weight and I'm struggling to lift it. Do I look fat in this outfit? My face is so red, it's embarrassing. I'm going to throw up. Where's the nearest bathroom in case I need to throw up? I don't want to lift this because I might work too hard and throw up and that would be embarrassing."
First of all, get over yourself. The universe does not revolve around you. Only your universe revolves around you. So take these thoughts, hold them out in front of you and dissect them. Once you've figured out why every thought is totally ridiculous, you can tell them all to fuck off.
For example: "Everyone here is watching me."
Dissection: "Okay, I'm not watching everyone when I go to the gym. I watch what I'm doing. Why would anyone go to the gym to watch others as a pastime? Unless they were psycho, and if that's the case, they're psycho so don't worry about them. This guy is working on his triceps, that guy over there is resting before another go at leg press, she's focused on reaching a specific distance on the treadmill, that girl is about to doing pull-ups and can't even see me because her back is to me. If someone does make eye contact with me, maybe they have thought something just like I could think something of them but my thoughts come and go, they don't mean any harm to anyone and no one cares about my thoughts that are in my head. So no one is watching me. Fuck off, stupid irrational thought. I'm going to kill this workout now."
More on CBT here.
The main thing I want you to take away from this post is how much BS your imagination can give you. Make sure to observe your negative thoughts and rationalize them. It was not easy for me to go to the gym at first. It's still a little scary now as I try to pull off wearing an all-purple outfit with my stomach showing.
If you are diligent and truly want to get comfortable at the gym, it takes practice. Be consistent. Don't listen to your thoughts, listen to logic (and if you're sick, then listen to your sickness and stay in bed at home!)
What other tactics have you used to conquer anxiety at the gym? Please comment below.