How to: fight gym anxiety with Sana Powell

If you suffer from gym anxiety, you are not alone! We sat down with Licensed professional counsellor, Sana Powell, AKA the ‘Curly Therapist’, who gave us her advice on how to fight gym anxiety in 2022.

‘The Curly Therapist’ was the title Sana decided to give herself when she started her online Instagram platform for mental health advice. As an Indian-American woman, her curly hair was a huge part of her physical identity growing up, a true representation of her culture and identity! Sana’s goal for her online platform was to create a space for inclusive metal health content, because growing up she felt mental health was “taboo” more than anything else in her culture. As a LPC, she decided, “I wanted to just bring a diverse perspective into the conversation around mental emotional well being, and hopefully help other people realise that their mental health is just as important as anyone else’s”.

How would you define ‘Gym Anxiety’?

When I think of the concept, ‘Gym Anxiety’ it is actually something that is pretty personal to me. Not only have I dealt with it in the past, but still deal with, so I wanted to really reflect on this topic and hopefully bring in some things that I am learning in the process. How I would define ‘Gym Anxiety’ though is I think of this sense of self consciousness that we might feel when we are faced with a potentially intimidating or embarrassing experience at the gym.

What are the signs of ‘Gym Anxiety’?

Gym Anxiety is so broad, and it can look different for each person depending on what their past experiences have been with not just the gym but their fitness, their bodies and their sense of self in general. Some signs of gym anxiety could be anxiety related to aspects, like what other people will think of your appearance, or your abilities, feeling anxious about how competent you are with using the equipment if other people are judging you for not doing it correctly.

For example, I have had a man come up to me at the gym and tell me, “Oh you’re actually not using this machine right, this is how you’re supposed to use it instead”. He was really friendly about it, but at the same time I didn’t want any one else's opinion, I just wanted to use the machine how I wanted. Therefore, I want to validate people in saying it is a real fear you can have, because sometimes people want to give unsolicited advice. When it comes to physiological signs of anxiety, you might experience your heart start to race, your hands get sweaty, you feel like it is harder to think and make decisions. It is like an overwhelming sense of dread, we call it ‘an impending sense of doom’ like something really bad is going to happen. You do not know what it is, but you are hyper vigilant and very protective.

What advice would you give to someone on how to fight gym anxiety? 

Check out the gyms website before you attend for the first time, this will give you an understanding of their facilities and you can have a virtual look around, you can also have an understanding on how to get there.

Something that really help me when starting the gym, was talking to the staff about the memberships they offered. They can then give their professional advice and you can ask any questions you have in regards to any you’re worried or wondering in regards to the gym.  

Whether it’s a friend, family member or a partner, or a work colleague, try and find someone to go to the gym with. Having that social support when you’re at the gym, especially if it’s a space that makes you feel anxious, it can help ease that anxiety and be grounding. When we have someone with us that makes us feel comfortable, we are able to focus on ourselves more, and we realise that other people may not be as concerned with us or even interested in us as we think they are.

With gym anxiety, you are already dealing with uncertainty when it comes to going to the gym. For example, you are unsure on how many people are going to be there or who is going to be there, therefore, if you can control what you are going to be doing/training that day, it will take away some of that decision fatigue. It can be overwhelming seeing all of the different equipment and machines in the gym, so planning your time/workout will be extremely beneficial to taking away some of the decision fatigue. This leads me on to my next bit of advice...

I’ve always found that people who work at a gym are pretty friendly, and they want to help you. Inductions are there so that you can familiarise yourself with the gym, the equipment to ensure your safety and as ORIGYM states, ‘Gym inductions are a great way to meet the trainers, learn the basics in the presence of a personal trainer and give you the confidence to step foot in the gym without feeling nervous’. It can feel empowering, sort of having that foundational knowledge, once you start using the equipment and machines, you not longer feel like a beginner.

The time you choose to go to the gym can impact your comfort level. If being in crowded places makes you feel anxious, you may want to go early in the morning, late at night or during non-peak hours. I have to say, I’m not a morning person, but I’d imagine you’d have a sense of accomplishment where you’ve gone to the gym before people are even there, you got to your place of work or start your day and now you have your whole day ahead of you knowing that you have already worked out in the morning.

Anxiety can present itself in different ways, you heart could start racing, you start to feel overwhelmed, shaky or your stomach is uneasy -it is really important to be in tune with your body. Moving your body is just one way to reduce anxiety, physical movement is the perfect way to release tension - for some this may be to get your heart pumping, for others it may be stretching or deep breathing exercises. 

What’s wonderful about the gym is that you have all of the different spaces and once you get acquainted with what you enjoy doing at the gym, you’ll get a better sense of what helps you to stay calm and feel regulated.

This is your year!