How to Cope With Social Anxiety at the Gym

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Many people experience gym anxiety when they first start working out somewhere new. Some students also fear physical education class. However, for those with social anxiety disorder (SAD), anxiety about going to the gym or attending gym class can be so severe that it interferes with daily functioning.

Imagine the thought of an upcoming gym session or phys ed class leaving you so distraught that you have a stomach in knots or experience a panic attack. That is the experience of many people with SAD when it comes to physical exercise in a gym.

Social Anxiety Triggers at the Gym

A number of aspects of the typical gym or workout facility may trigger social anxiety. These include

  • changing in front of others
  • feeling intimidated by others who are in better shape
  • not knowing how to use the equipment
  • feeling like people are staring at you
  • difficulty with group classes
  • anxiety about sweating or other aspects of working out
  • worrying about making small talk
  • 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.

1. Manage Thoughts

Therapy for social anxiety disorder involves managing the negative thought processes that maintain your anxiety. Use this method to help cope in the following ways.

If you think, "Everyone is staring at me. They must think I am fat and out of shape," replace it with the more realistic thought, "Everyone is pretty much focused on themselves and their own workout. I don't think they really care much what I am doing or what I look like."

If you think, "I feel so anxious, I can't get through this workout," replace it with the more realistic thought, "I just need to focus on the exercise and I can get through this. Keep counting the reps (check the distance or time) and try to get a great workout."

If you think, "What am I doing here? I don't belong here, I can't do this," replace it with the more realistic thought, "I made  goal to get in better shape in the next 12 months. I am working toward that goal, and I belong here just as much as everyone else."

2. Build Confidence

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

  • Just go and do it! The more often you go to the gym, the easier it will get each time.
  • Research the gym equipment ahead of time so you feel less intimidated and are familiar with the purpose of each one.
  • Realize that as you become more fit, your confidence will grow as well.
  • Purchase gym attire that makes you feel confident, that you like wearing, and that makes exercise easier to do.

3. Gradual Exposure

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. An simple example of your visits to the gym might look like this.
  1. Work out at home doing something you enjoy.
  2. Go to the gym and walk around a bit.
  3. Exercise on one machine for 10 minutes and then leave.
  4. Make a list of exercises using machines and complete everything on your list.
  5. Say hi or make small talk with one other member of the gym.
  6. Take a group class such as zumba or yoga.

4. Get Help

If you are still struggling to find your place, go to the gym with someone who already knows his or her way around, or sign up for sessions with a personal trainer to get a proper orientation. 

5. 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, swimming, etc.

Gym Anxiety at School

Anxiety at the gym is not limited to adults. Many children and teenagers also suffer severe social anxiety at the thought of taking part in 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
  • having a lack of confidence in your physical ability

Parents and their children/teens should work with the school on this matter. If a child/teen has been diagnosed with SAD, arrange a meeting with the phys ed teacher, guidance counselor, principal, and/or school psychologist. Discuss alternatives such as one-on-one exercise programs or credit for exercise done in the home or at settings outside the school.

As a parent, you can help by practicing sports with your child that you know he or she will be participating in soon in phys ed class. Also, talk to your teen about how it is okay 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 of exercise.

Why Go to the Gym/Phys Ed Class at All?

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 individuals 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. It's not a replacement for therapy or medication, but when added to these traditional treatments there may be some added benefit.

Diagnosis and Treatment

The findings reported bring us back full circle to the dilemma facing those with social anxiety. Have you been diagnosed and received treatment for social anxiety disorder? If not, and if your symptoms of social anxiety are severe, it is recommended that you 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.

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Article Sources
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  • Jayakody K, Gunadasa S, Hosker C. Exercise for anxiety disorders: systematic review. Br J Sports Med. 2014;48(3):187-196. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2012-091287.
  • Spark. Parent Tips: Helping Your Child Overcome PE Anxiety