It was just another Tuesday night at the indoor cycling studio when it happened. I stepped off my instructor bike to bid my clients goodbye, slapping sweaty high-fives on their way out. Suddenly I was overcome by a deadening squeeze in my chest and an overwhelming need to get away. When I got into the locker room, I thought my heart was cracking apart and the world was about to end. My hands wouldn't stop shaking and my vision grew foggy. I sat down hard on the tile floor beneath me and wanted to scream, but my lungs couldn't gather enough air from my quick, shallow breaths to make a sound.
It was my first panic attack.
"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. (Our sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our sense of fight or flight, aka our running-from-the-sabertooth-tiger adrenaline response.) "Panic attacks can vary from person to person, but the symptoms come on quickly and normally peak within a few minutes," she told POPSUGAR.
But exercise is supposed to reduce stress, right? That's why we pound the pavement after a fight with our significant other or fly our legs on the bike after a long day at the office. But what if all that cardio was actually perpetuating my anxiety — or, even worse, causing it?
"The physiologic response of an intense workout might mimic the physical symptoms of a panic attack," said Dr. Long. "Given the desire to avoid a panic attack, a person may fear that an attack is coming on, which can then feed the fear and intense sensation of impending doom." So not only can these post-workout feels mimic an attack, but the mere memory and hopeful avoidance of a panic attack may also be enough of a trigger.
But why now? Indoor cycling is not only my favorite way to stay active and healthy, but it's also my job. But just like that, I was locked in a cycle of teach, high-five, panic . . . and I couldn't get out.
"Hormonal imbalance, anxiety, depression, stress, and trauma, along with other health issues related to anxiety: all can go hand in hand. The body and mind are very complex," said Beth Pferdehirt, FNP-C at One Medical.
My high-intensity cardio several times per week combined with a full schedule (including balancing a full-time job, fun with friends, Spin classes, and weekend trips) was running me dry. And in a go-go-go city like San Francisco, the constant noise and busyness have an impact, too. These factors, along with my journey recovering from depression and hormonal issues, sparked my attacks. They were my body's cry for help.
If you've experienced panic attacks of your own surrounding cardio or your daily routine, there is good news: you are not alone! And you don't always have to feel this way. In my own personal journey to recovery, I've picked up these three strategies to combat anxiety and find peace.
1. Choose the Right Post-Workout Routine
"The good news is just as many of us have inadvertently trained our brains to respond with anxiety, we can also train our brain to recognize sympathetic nervous system triggers and respond with stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system (our relax-and-digest system, the same part that is innervated in final Savasana after yoga class)," said Beth.
So if you're already sprinting toward the door before the cooldown has even started, hold up! Instead of quickly transitioning to your next activity, take a moment to connect to your body. Focus on the sensation of your feet on the ground and take slow, deep breaths to lower your heart rate and steady your breath before you head on to the rest of the day.
Going from cardio to coffee? "If you are still sweating even after your shower, be mindful of your still-heightened adrenaline response and go for water, rather than a caffeinated beverage, until those intense sensations wear off," said Dr. Long. So, basically, your skinny vanilla latte can wait. (Or grab a decaf Americano instead. Shhh . . . I won't tell!)
2. Get Off the Treadmill
If you're experiencing the heart-squeeze after your workout, having trouble sleeping, or feel exhausted or stressed all the time, even after your heart-pumping workout, it's time to pause and scan your body from head to toe.
"Get off the treadmill to take a look at what is and isn't working in your life right now," said Caroline Jordan, San Francisco-based fitness expert and health coach. "Be honest with yourself." If you've been living in a pattern of high stress lately, be it in jobs, relationships, or simply in your day-to-day routine, cardio may not be your answer right now.
Instead of HIIT class or Spin, opt for slower workouts to complement your hectic days and balance your body. Yoga is a tried-and-true way to unwind your body and mind. Find a flow that suits you or even opt to work a restorative class into your week. Looking to get sculpted at a slower pace? Pilates works every muscle in your body with core-focused movements.
3. Call in the Professional
When anxiety becomes too much to handle or interferes with your ability to complete daily tasks or enjoy your workouts, it may be time to seek out a professional. It takes strength and bravery to ask for help, but it may bring about the life-changing tools you need for relief and lasting health.
"It's crucial to have a primary care provider, and often a mental health provider or anxiety coach, that really understands your unique symptoms and lifestyle, history, and impact to guide you in the proper diagnosis and treatment of symptoms," said Beth. Keeping up with regular check-ins is essential to keeping your anxiety reduction and treatment heading in the right direction.
Developing tools to treat your anxiety head-on before it spirals out of control prepares you for future situations. "Working with a cognitive behavioral specialist over the course of eight to 10 sessions can produce demonstrable and impactful changes in your life," said Dr. Long.
So are you experiencing more heart pumping after cardio than you really need? Take a deep breath and pause. Remember: there is absolutely no shame in asking for guidance and taking the necessary steps you need toward better health and wellness. Self-care is as necessary as food, air, and water.
"You may be feeling this [anxiety] right now," said Caroline, "but it doesn't have to be this way. What we really need is the inner work — the self-acceptance and self-love — more than the cardio."