How Exercise Has Helped Me Manage Anxiety and Panic Attacks

POPSUGAR Photography | Kathryna Hancock
POPSUGAR Photography | Kathryna Hancock

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, more than 6 million Americans suffer from panic disorder, with women being twice as likely as men to be affected by panic attacks and anxiety. You can blame it on the hormones, blame it on the moon, but the truth of the matter is we take on too much. Or at least I know I did.

I had my first panic disorder after I graduated high school. I took some time off before starting college, and didn't have a car or friends for that matter. So I spent a lot of time alone, in my own head. I started having chest pains, followed by uncontrollable episodes of just crying to myself. I remember going to urgent care and getting prescribed a medication for a chest cold. That sure helped a lot.

It wasn't until I found a doctor that actually took the time to sit down and listen to my symptoms that I was properly diagnosed with panic disorder. Although I finally had my answers, I didn't have a way of making it better. The common cure for a little anxiety is some medication and a simple "just breathe" every now and then.

Needless to say, as I got older and the responsibilities got heavier, the panic got worse. I got to the point where I practically had a nervous breakdown. Schoolwork, job responsibilities, relationships, internships, and late nights were the perfect cocktail for a breakdown. I actually spent a few days in a behavioral clinic with others who were detoxing from drug use or dealing with other mental disorders. I got to the point where I started refusing medication. I wanted to take control of my life.

As someone who has dealt with anxiety for more than 10 years, I came up with a million things that could go wrong.

I chipped away piece by piece at the external factors that were causing me so much stress and researched coping mechanisms to help me deal. I started a morning meditation routine and learned different methods like tapping to catch myself in the moment. Yet, one of the biggest and most helpful coping strategies for me was the day I found Les Mills Body Pump at my local gym.

I've always heard that exercise can improve your mood, sharpen your mind, and well, make you look pretty awesome too. This exercise class is an invigorating hour-long mix or full-body workouts using a barbell and free weights to some pretty sick beats. I was extremely intimidated, and downright scared to get started. As someone who has dealt with panic and anxiety for more than 10 years, I came up with a million things that could go wrong.

I decided to go anyway. It wasn't an easy decision.

When you suffer from anxiety or depression, the last thing you want to do is put yourself in a position where people can judge you. The local gym can be one of the most intimidating mountains to conquer, as the atmosphere is the perfect cocktail of everything those of us with anxiety avoid: public spaces, sweating and rapid heartbeats, and most of all embarrassment.

One of the major motivators for me to get in the gym was a promise I made to myself when I was at the behavioral clinic. I made a promise to myself that I would make taking care of myself my number one priority. I didn't want to let anxiety control my life. I started my exposure to the gym by simply driving there. I could sit in the parking lot for 10 minutes, but the act of getting myself to the parking lot improved my confidence. Then I gradually moved up to walking inside, even for a few minutes. I know it sounds weird, but just taking in the sounds, the people, and the atmosphere will not only help you adapt, but will help train your brain to realize this is a safe place you want to be.

I didn't want to let anxiety control my life. I started my exposure to the gym by simply driving there.

Working out with a friend or family member is also one of the best ways to help you become more comfortable with working out in public. I know for me having someone around I can trust helps lower my anxiety. It's also good to scope out the group classes, having that sense of community can not only help alleviate worries, but you might also make some fitness pals along the way. If you feel anxious about joining a group class, start out by standing by the door. When dealing with anxiety and panic for me, I always felt more comfortable knowing I had an easy escape route. You will be so focused on the class and having so much fun, you won't even consider leaving. As your confidence grows, you'll be up front next to the teacher in no time.

I sat and watched the class a few times before getting the courage to participate. I loved seeing how hard everyone was working; I wanted to be a part of that. I decided one day to try the class, and stood by the door. My first class I only lasted 30 minutes before I got exhausted. I didn't leave because of my anxiety; my muscles were a sore I never felt before. When you are going from your heart racing from fear, to your blood pumping from exercise, it's best to start out at a slow pace that's comfortable for you. If that means you can only do half the class, that's OK. Also, I know it's easy to want to go heavy on the weights like everyone else, but remember your doing this for you, and you will get there one day. Take pride in knowing the battle you have already fought to get there in the first place.

I've been doing Body Pump now for three years, and couldn't imagine my life without it. Life will never be without its fair share of stressors and downright nonsense, but for that one hour when I'm lifting those weights and making my body stronger, all of that goes away. I've learned through exercise how to focus on the present moment, something I really struggled with during a panic attack. I still listen to my body, and if I feel worn down or that the anxiety is coming back on, I will rest. That's the most important thing I've learned by starting a gym routine, and that I hope to teach others going through panic and anxiety, is to push your limits outside of your comfort zone, but allow your body to recuperate when needed. That way you can be better prepared and energized to handle everything that life has to throw at you, and you'll be strong enough to throw it right back.