Sun is warming, tanks replaced sweaters, and bikini season is among us. Yes, all is wonderful with the exception of one thing: That beach-body goal! From awkward first time gym appearances to feeling inadequate next to that buff guy lifting 50-pound weights on each hand next to you, we’ve all been there. To some, the gym may feel like home (to others… not so much). Unfortunately, if you’re the latter, anxiety may rear its ugly head. Feelings of anxiety may be a result of not knowing how all these thing-a-mabob machines work or feeling like you have to pick up heavier weights to prove to the person next to you that you actually know what you’re doing. In fact, this feeling has a name: social anxiety. More specifically, social anxiety is defined as the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations.
Over 15 million American adults suffer from social anxiety disorder, which is often misperceived as typical shyness that people just need to “get over.” The problem, however, is that anxiety is much more than one’s unwillingness or inability to overcome shyness: it is an actual medical condition involving neurotransmitters that we do not have much control over. These chemicals (specifically serotonin and norepinephrine) greatly affect emotional responses depending on the levels of each neurotransmitter within the brain. Anxiety has an array of symptoms that affect each person differently, with each landing on different ends of severity spectrum.
Fortunately, there are a few symptoms that are widely accepted to be the hallmarks of social anxiety. The DSM-5 (a manual used by mental health professionals) lists some of the following symptoms as the trademarks of social anxiety:
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting 6 or more months.
- The person recognizes that this fear is unreasonable or excessive.
- The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the feared social or performance situation(s) interferes significantly with the person’s routine, occupational (academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia.
- The fear or avoidance is not due to di- rect physiological effects of a substance (e.g., drugs, medications) or a general medical condition not better accounted for by another mental disorder.
Furthermore, anxiety is often categorized into seven different forms: phobias, generalized anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, agoraphobia and social anxiety. However, it is important to note that although people may experience the same type of anxiety, different coping mechanisms are best suited for each individual. If you fall prey to anxiety, the following step may be the toughest; learning how to cope with its symptoms. Nonetheless, there is a universally accepted coping mechanism – exercise, in which helps abate anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Exercise has been described as an “intervention” in clinical psychology, and one of the explanations for its effectiveness is due to naturally occurring chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins are tiny neurotransmitters that work as analgesics on a person’s brain to increase pleasant stimulation, and awesome enough, the simple act of exercise releases loads of them! But before throwing yourself into a new anxiety playground (like the gym for some), it is important to try and understand when you are experiencing anxiety, and how you can manage it.
As previously mentioned, anxiety has multiple symptoms, but dividing them between the somatic (physical) and the emotional symptoms may aid the some cope with their symptoms. Somatic symptoms include: hyperventilation or breathing heavily, muscle tension or tremors, twitches or shaking, dizziness or upset stomach, ponding heart, and cold or sweaty hands and/or feet. On the emotional end, common symptoms include: feeling tense and jumpy, panic (uneasy) or fearful, troubled by concern, irritable, restlessness or inability to be still/calm. If you experience these symptoms at the gym, then you may be experiencing social anxiety. BUT DO NOT FEAR!
The following tips used by sports psychologists may be of assistance to you:
- Relax. Take deep breaths (Inhale and exhale slowly), and count to 10.
- Identify your anxiety. Experiencing anxiety is the easy part, but being able to label your emotions if and when you are facing them, along with writing them down, has been an effective way to flush out negative thoughts.
- Be positive. Recognize that the problem causing your anxiety may not be fixed immediately, so keep in mind that it is not you.
- Seek social support. Talk to friends and family about what is making you feel overwhelmed. You may even be surprised to find out that you are not alone.
- Consult with a mental health provider and find a fitness program/fitness professional to help you learn!
*Dr. Mercado’s students in his Mental Health Research Lab at UTPA contributed to this article
Alfonso Mercado, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist,
Valley Psychological Services,
Assistant Professor-Department of Psychology
The University of Texas-Pan American
1201 West University Drive
Edinburg, Texas 78539