I first discovered my cardio-induced panic attacks at the end of 2016. The second I'd get off my Spin bike, my heart would pound uncontrollably, my breath would shorten, and I'd feel as if impending doom was right around the corner. As a fitness instructor, this made it incredibly difficult not only to do my job but to participate in my own workouts as well.
"A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers your sympathetic nervous system and, in doing so, produces a physical reaction," said Dr. Stephanie Long, primary care physician at One Medical. The sympathetic nervous system prompts a "fight-or-flight" response that historically allowed our caveman ancestors to react swiftly to avoid potential threats. However, due to our go-go-go lifestyles and the need to be constantly "on," our bodies remain in this hypervigilant state even when sabertooth tigers aren't looming behind the next rock.
So where does cardio come in? According to Caroline Jordan, certified wellness coach and fitness professional, intense and frequent cardio exercise can actually place more stress on the body and heart due to adrenaline and rising cortisol levels. While this response can be offset by hormones stimulated in weight-training exercises, proper nutrition, and rest, we rarely give our bodies the complete recovery we need. Not to mention the fact that cortisol levels are compounded even more by the addition of daily stressors and too-short rest periods. (That 10-day indoor cycling challenge? Yeah, not the best for you!)
Alas, cardio junkies, don't fret — remember, balance is key in any fitness regimen. Next time your anxiety spikes, try sweating out your stress with one of these healthy alternatives.
Take a Hike
That's right — we all know fresh air will do us good. When you're feeling particularly anxious, get out of the studio and hit the trail. Connecting with nature allows us to disconnect from our loud, hectic environments while still getting our heart pumping and blood flowing.
Whether it's a nine-mile butt kicker up a mountain or short loop, revel in the change of pace and soothing natural sounds. "Connect to your breath, focus on the sensation of your feet on the ground," said Dr. Long. Not near a big open space? Even a simple stroll in the park or walk along the beach will do. Bonus points — take off your shoes (watch your step!) and feel the benefits of grounding.
Hop on a Megaformer
When Spin sessions became too much for me, I turned to the Lagree Method classes, a Pilates-style fitness class taught on a Megaformer, for my fitness fix. "It's high-intensity yet low-impact full-body conditioning that combines strength, core, endurance, and flexibility training in 45 minutes," said Mary Elkins of Titan Core, a Lagree Method studio in Kailua, HI. The combination of movements utilizing my own bodyweight along with springs for additional tension left me comfortably sweaty with my muscles quaking — but my heart rate didn't spike high enough to trigger a panic attack or high-anxiety state. Sweaty, sore, and stress-free? Check, check, and check.
Give Yourself a Rest Day
Sometimes the best thing to do for yourself is nothing at all. "Create space to nourish yourself in other ways," suggested Jordan. Treat yourself to a pedicure, read that book you've been dying to finish, cook a healthy meal, or take a nap! "Mindfulness and meditation are also important tools to quell panic attacks and anxiety," Dr. Long told POPSUGAR. Gift your body and mind time to repair and recover from the inside out. Gently release any guilt, knowing in the long run, this extra day off may serve your soul better than any SoulCycle class ever would.