Physical activity has positive outcomes for both mental and physical health. Exercise has been found to help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. For many individuals, the gym is an enjoyable place to be, serving as an escape from daily stress. However, if you have social anxiety disorder, going to the gym may actually be the cause of anxiety.
Social anxiety, or social phobia, is a type of anxiety disorder that affects 7% of American adults. Social anxiety is more than just being a shy person. These people will experience anxiety symptoms in certain or all social situations like meeting new people, answering questions in class, or doing everyday things in front of other people, to name a few. The anxiety stems from fears that they will be judged harshly, humiliated or rejected by others. They may worry about acting or appearing anxious, or being viewed as stupid or awkward. The gym is likely to be a place that causes these worries to arise.
Individuals with social anxiety may be less likely to go to the gym, or even believe they are less capable of going to the gym due to these fears. In fact, studies have found that they are more likely to avoid individual sports where there would be observers. There are various situations at the gym that can trigger social anxiety. These triggers include: changing in front of people, feeling intimidating by others who are in better shape than you, not knowing how to use the equipment, feeling like people are staring at you, and anxiety about sweating. Social anxiety at the gym can be extremely uncomfortable, but it does not have to prevent you from going. There are many things an individual can do to cope with and overcome this fear.
1. Go with a friend
Sometimes all you need is a gym buddy to help alleviate some of that gym anxiety. Not only can it make you feel more comfortable, but they can help take your mind off the anxiety and hold you accountable for going to the gym – a double win.
2. Start small
Instead of trying to go to the gym for a full 50 minutes the very first time, start small and work your way up. For example, take a tour when you join to feel comfortable with the gym. Then, go to the gym but only for 10-15 minutes. The next time increase the amount of time you go and try one new exercise. Continue this until you have reached your gym goal (e.g., working out for a total of 45 minutes). In therapy, this is called gradual exposure and when done correctly it can be extremely effective in eliminating fears. By facing the feared stimulus (i.e., the gym) in small doses, you learn that it is not harmful and build confidence to face more anxiety.
Tip: When you are feeling anxious before going to the gym, write down what you expect will happen. Afterward, write down what actually happened and then compare the two. Oftentimes our anxiety warps our perspective and expectations.
3. Target negative thoughts
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the gold-standard psychotherapy for many different disorders, included social anxiety disorder. In CBT, the client is taught to target maladaptive negative thoughts (e.g., I’ll look stupid, people will laugh at me, etc.). By identifying the anxiety-provoking thoughts they have, they can begin to challenge them.
For example, if the thought is, “people are going to judge at me,” ask yourself what the worst and best case scenario is and how likely they are to happen. The worst case may be that someone does judge you and they say mean things to your face. However, this is very unlikely to happen. The best case is that run up to you, tell you you’re doing a great job and give you a high-five! Also not very likely to happen. The more likely and realistic outcome is that they don’t even notice you because they are focused on what they are doing. Try to play the judge with yourself and challenge your negative thoughts. By altering the anxious thoughts into more realistic ones, it can help to decrease the anxiety.
4. Talk to someone
If you have tried everything and nothing seems to work or if your social anxiety worsens, consider talking to a professional. While these tips are designed to be helpful, they are by no means a replacement for therapy or a cure for social anxiety. A mental health professional can help create a specific treatment plan designed to best fit your needs.
Social anxiety does not have to keep you from doing things that you like. If working out at the gym is a priority, give some of these helpful tips a try. It is likely to cause some anxiety, but by facing this fear you can see that the gym is not a dangerous place to be – in terms of anxiety. By overcoming it, you can meet your gym and mental health goals!