When Physical Exercise Feels Just Like A Panic Attack
I’ve had more honest-to-goodness panic attacks in my life than I can count. And by “honest-to-goodness,” I mean the real deal: racing heart, palpitations, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, incredibly unsolicited surges of adrenaline…and so on. Simultaneously.
Many people — from friends to doctors — told me to start exercising. My friends said it would reduce my stress and help me to sleep better at night. The University of Georgia says it can reduce my anxiety. My doctor told me that getting in shape will reduce heart palpitations and increase my lung capacity.
True, true, and true. But here’s the big Catch-22 that kept me from following everyone’s good advice: exercising made me panic.
And why? Well, a body that’s going through a nightmarish panic attack is physiologically similar to a body that’s happily jogging along a park trail:
-Heart rate: Increases during panic. Increases during exercise.
-Breathing rate: Increases during panic. Increases during exercise.
-Adrenaline: Increases during panic. Increases during exercise.
I could go on, but you get the idea. Exercise can feel like a panic attack. And who wants to willingly invoke THAT awful feeling?
I grit my teeth as I write this. I don’t want to face this fact, but it’s true: for the umpteenth time in my life, I have become afraid of exercise. The rapid heart rate reminds me of my worst ohmygod-I-swear-this-is-a-heart-attack breed of panic attacks. I am always afraid that the quick breathing will make me pass out — even though I know the extra oxygen I’m inhaling is 100% necessary, normal, and natural during physical activity. And the inevitable adrenaline rushes? They make me want to bolt. Straight out of the gym. To quickly escape the (intangible) threat that is my own fear.
And I hate these faulty associations. A rapid heart rate, as I’m sure I learned in 6th grade health class, is a healthy effect of exercise. The heart is a muscle, exercise strengthens that muscle, yadda yadda, and so on. I know this stuff. I know this stuff deep down in the rational part of my brain, but I simply can’t bring that notion — that exercise is safe and healthy and won’t hurt me — to the front burner when I’m standing on my treadmill.
That said, I am determined to start exercising again.
I faced this problem a few years ago when I was a grad student at the University of Delaware. I lived in a campus apartment building and we (conveniently!) had small gym about a two minute walk away. One day, while feeling anxious about an upcoming exam for my Statistics class, I decided to take everyone’s advice & expose myself to the miracle cure that is physical exercise. I tied my sneaker laces and walked to the gym.
I had a panic attack on the elliptical and I never went back.
Over the next few months, I slowly trained myself to let go of my exercise fear. Thankfully, I took notes. Here’s what I jotted down as a how-to guide for my future self:
1. Start in a comfortable environment. Skip the gym, for now, if it triggers agoraphobia or any sense of unease. Even if you don’t have any fancy equipment, you can begin to exercise in your own home or apartment. Try a few of these activities. Dancing and jogging in place might look a little silly, but they’re legit ways to get your heart pumping.
2. Take baby steps. You don’t need to jump right into the 20-minutes-3-times-per-week deal. Treat yourself kindly. If the sensations of exercise scare you, start slowly. See if you can run in place or dance for thirty seconds. Then, stop. Don’t overdo it on the first day. Try a full minute on day 2. If that works, try two minutes the next day. Such a gentle schedule might sound laughable, sure, but don’t let anyone tell you that you ought to be doing more right away. The goal, at this point, is to reacquaint yourself with the physical sensations of exercise. Two minutes of dancing around in your apartment is better than nothing at all.
3. Distract yourself from the uncomfortable sensations (at first). Sure, the long-term goal for anyone suffering from frequent panic attacks ought to be one that involves developing a tolerance for those disconcerting sensations like lightheadedness and muscle fatigue. Ultimately, learning to cope with those panicky feelings — feelings that might never disappear 100% — will allow you to live a less limited life. But for now, if distraction can help you get through a few exercise sessions and onto a better path, all the better. Try focusing on music while running or dancing, or try watching a TV show in your living room while doing pilates. If you pay attention to the plot line, the musical beat, or the lyrics — instead of focusing such strict attention on your body — your exercise session will probably feel less daunting.
4. Expose yourself to the sensations of exercise (and panic) in other ways. If feeling hot or sweaty is a panic trigger for you, try hanging out in your bathroom for a little while after showering. Feel the warmth and allow yourself to sweat a little bit. Notice the sensations on your skin. Simply pay attention to the way your hands, legs, and body feel. The more often you become aware of and accept these sensations, the more you’ll desensitize yourself to their discomfort.
Tomorrow, you’ll find me dancing around in my living room for about two minutes. (And I will probably look ridiculous, so I’ll be sure to close the curtains. You’re welcome.)
But next month, you’ll find me jogging around the block.
Beretsky, S. (2018). When Physical Exercise Feels Just Like A Panic Attack. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 4, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/when-physical-exercise-feels-just-like-a-panic-attack/