You may not know it when you first meet me, but I've spent many years battling anxiety. I've had to miss countless days of work or school in the past because I was stuck in the fetal position in the corner of my closet for no reason other than I felt like I couldn't handle what the world was throwing at me. Thankfully, over the last two years, I've managed to get a hold of my anxiety symptoms through holistic treatments like acupuncture and therapy and also paying close attention to my diet and fitness habits.
I've always been someone who loves to exercise. I love the sweat, the racing heartbeat, and the feeling of accomplishment after a tough session. However, anxiety tends to get in the way of everything you enjoy in life, including and especially exercising. When my anxiety was at its height, for example, I couldn't even think of going to a group fitness class, even the ones that I love. The thought of being in close proximity with so many strangers gave me the shakes, and many of those classes simply induce sensory overload — loud music, boisterous instructor, and lots of different equipment at your feet. This is a lot to handle when you are crippled by anxiety.
Although yoga has always been a love of mine — I've been teaching yoga for almost five years now — I didn't always find relief from the practice when my anxiety was at its worst. It sounds strange, but all the slow breathing and long exhales sometimes made me insanely nervous. My heart would beat rapidly in of my chest, to the point where I felt like I was going to suffocate. Similarly, activities like running and cycling would only make me more jittery as well, and sometimes I walked out feeling worse than before I walked in.
I fell in love with weightlifting a year and a half ago. I never thought it was something I would ever like, but as soon as I started CrossFit, I realized that my favorite part of all the WODs (workout of the day) was the strength portion. I loved working on my squat and deadlift form, and I became enamored with working my way up to doing pull-ups unassisted. There was something about this type of workout that was calming, steadying, and very grounding.
Last year, I stopped doing CrossFit because many of the explosive, fast movements were aggravating my lower back. I have scoliosis, and both my chiropractor and acupuncturist suggested I take a break from the workout and instead focus on a strength-training program that was a bit slower paced and more methodical. So I started lifting weights on my own — and that's when I saw a real difference in my anxiety.
After a few months of regular weightlifting, I noticed that after every single session, I would walk out of the gym feeling calm and relaxed. There was something so relieving about working out without having to worry about following along with the people around me or trying to get the choreography right. I was simply able to plug into my favorite music and follow the workout I laid out for myself.
A truly effective weightlifting program is meant to be done slowly and intentionally. If you're doing strength-training moves like squats or hip thrusts at a fast pace, you're likely not doing it with the right form and you're probably not getting the full benefit from the exercise. Because I had to slow down and perform each rep with full focus, my mind instantly let go of all the other things I was worrying about in the back of my head. Because when you're about to deadlift your own bodyweight, there isn't much room in your brain for anything other than getting that barbell off the floor with good form.
Additionally, when you're lifting weights in the classic sense, you have to take a break in between each set in order to catch your breath and give yourself a mini recovery before exhausting your muscles again. This small respite became my time that was free of obligations and responsibilities. All I had to do was put the weights down, let my heart rate come down, and just experience the sensations of my muscles getting stronger. It's a strangely calming experience.
Lifting weights ended up being like therapy for me. Now I love navigating the gym in my own time, choosing which weights to use and not having to worry about keeping up with the person next to me. Just as importantly, strength training has completely changed my body. I've gained muscle and lost fat, and I've become more confident in my own skin than ever before. This has improved my anxiety immensely. I feel so strong and powerful now, which has given me the courage to step back and take care of myself when I feel my anxiety welling up inside of me. I think to myself, If I can squat 200 pounds, I can overcome these anxiety symptoms.
Since my anxiety has improved significantly over the last year, I'm able to engage in all types of different workouts now. I like to run a couple times a week, I still do a lot of yoga, and I go to Barry's Bootcamp twice a month. But weightlifting is still my main squeeze, especially if I'm feeling particularly stressed out. It's the very thing that helps me ground myself and remember that my body and my mind are capable of accomplishing some pretty amazing things.