How to Cope With Social Anxiety at the Gym

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Gym anxiety is common when you first start working out somewhere new. If you're a student, you might also be afraid of gym class at school. On the other hand, for those with social anxiety disorder (SAD), fear about going to the gym or attending gym class can be so severe that it interferes with just getting through the day.

Imagine the thought of an upcoming gym session or physical education class leaving you so distraught that your stomach is in knots or you experience a panic attack. For some people who suffer from SAD, working out in public or going to a gym class could trigger their symptoms.

Social Anxiety Triggers at the Gym

Many aspects of a typical gym or physical education class are intimidating enough for the average person, let alone for someone who experiences social anxiety. These could include:

  • Changing in front of people
  • Feeling intimidated by people who are in better shape
  • Having trouble using equipment
  • Feeling like people are staring at you
  • Experiencing trouble attending group classes
  • Having anxiety about sweating or other side effects of working out
  • Worrying about making small talk
  • Experiencing anxiety about using a public restroom

Coping With Social Anxiety at the Gym

Methods of coping with social anxiety at the gym fall into five broad categories: managing negative thoughts, building confidence, gradual exposure, getting help, and choosing alternatives.

Manage Thoughts

Therapy for social anxiety disorder involves managing the negative thought processes that keep your anxiety going. Use this method of examining the evidence that the thought is true or false to help you challenge the thought so you can then replace it with a more realistic and helpful thought to help cope in the following ways.

Anxious Thoughts
  • "Everyone is staring at me. They must think I'm fat and out of shape."

  • "I feel so anxious, I can't get through this workout."

  • "What am I doing here? I don't belong here, I can't do this."

Realistic Thoughts
  • "Everyone is focused on themselves and their own workout."

  • " I can do this. Keep counting the reps and do my best."

  • "I made a goal to get in better shape. I am working toward that goal."

Your thoughts impact your emotions and behaviors, so if you have unhelpful or negative thoughts, it is going to make you feel worse. Challenging and changing those thoughts to be more positive or helpful can help make you feel better.

Build Confidence

Build your confidence about going to the gym in these four easy ways:

  • Keep going. The more often you go to the gym, the easier it will get each time. The opposite is also true, and especially with anxiety—the more you avoid a situation the more anxiety-provoking it becomes.
  • Research the gym equipment ahead of time so you feel less intimidated and are familiar with the purpose of each one. Or, go with a friend who already knows how to use it.
  • Realize your confidence will grow the more you exercise and you will become more physically fit and active.
  • Buy gym clothes that make you feel confident, that you like wearing, and that make exercise easier to do.

You can also start slowly exposing yourself to the situation to help ease anxiety and build confidence. Start by researching gyms and perhaps walking or driving past them. Next, try going in to the gym and asking for a tour.

The goal is to expose yourself to the environment, the equipment, and the actual act of working out at the gym. Once you start to become more comfortable in the environment, you can then start using the equipment and taking classes. 

Also, if you realize that it is the locker room that is anxiety-provoking, you can plan ahead of time so that you don't need to use the locker room. Learning to identify your triggers is important.

Gradual Exposure

Numerous studies have shown the effectiveness that exercise can have on alleviating anxiety. When you are first getting used to a new gym, be kind to yourself. Gradually expose yourself to new situations so that anxiety can subside and eventually your confidence will grow.

  • Consider going at off-peak times at first, to avoid big crowds.
  • Wear headphones and listen to music or audiobooks at first, to help manage your anxiety.
  • Make a hierarchy of things to accomplish from small to big, and remove all expectations beyond the current stage you are at on this list.

Sample Goals to Meet at the Gym

Your list might look different depending on what you find the most anxiety-provoking:

  • Go to the gym and walk around a bit.
  • Exercise on one machine for 10 minutes and then leave.
  • Say hi or make small talk with one other member of the gym.
  • Take a group class such as Zumba or yoga. Yoga can be a great option for people with anxiety.

Get Help

If you are still struggling to find your place, go to the gym with someone who already knows their way around, or sign up for sessions with a personal trainer to get a proper orientation. You might also try finding alternatives to the gym such as an app or home workout that you can do instead. Many classes and gyms are now streaming classes online.

Choose Alternatives

If you find that working out at the gym just doesn't suit you, think of other activities that you can do such as working out at home, walking/running, or swimming.

Anxiety About Gym Class

Anxiety at the gym is not limited to adults. Many children and teenagers also suffer from social anxiety at the thought of taking part in a physical education class. Some of the triggers of this anxiety might include:

  • Being self-conscious about your weight/changes in your body
  • Worrying about making a mistake while playing on a team
  • Getting picked last during team selections
  • Being bullied by other students
  • Lacking confidence in your physical ability

If you've been diagnosed with SAD, have your parent arrange a meeting with the phys ed teacher, guidance counselor, principal, and/or school psychologist.

In this meeting, you can talk about alternatives such as one-on-one exercise programs or credit for exercise done in your home or at places outside the school. As a parent, you can help by practicing sports with your child that you know they will be doing soon in physical education class.

Also, talk to your teen about how it is okay—and even therapeutic—to laugh at yourself, and that trying is more important than being the best at a sport. Help your child/teen find physical activities that he/she truly enjoys to build confidence and a love for exercise.

Benefits of Exercise for Anxiety

With all the anxiety it causes, you may wonder if the gym or phys ed class is even worth it. A 2014 systematic review showed that exercise (both aerobic and non-aerobic) was effective as an adjunctive treatment for anxiety disorders but less effective than antidepressant treatment.

Added benefits were shown for people with SAD who combined exercise with group cognitive-behavioral therapy. However, a 2013 meta-analysis could not find support for the use of aerobic exercise as an effective treatment for anxiety disorders compared to control conditions.

It seems that exercise may be best used in addition to regular treatment for social anxiety disorder, and not necessarily a replacement for therapy or medication. But when added to these traditional treatments, there may be some added benefit.

A Word From Verywell

Have you been diagnosed and received treatment for social anxiety disorder? If not, and if your symptoms of social anxiety are severe, make an appointment with your doctor for further assessment and treatment.

If you (or your child/teen) is diagnosed with SAD, you will have access to treatment options and may be better able to understand your limitations when it comes to the gym or phys ed class. That is not to say that you can't participate, but that it might take you a lot longer to feel comfortable.

If this step seems too difficult, you could also start by reading self-help books on the topic to learn more about different therapies that are available, and eventually build your way up to receiving outside help.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."