It’s a gnawing sensation in your gut, and even if you can’t put your finger on exactly what’s causing it, you know the results: You’re uneasy, agitated and apprehensive. You can’t concentrate; you can’t relax; you can’t seem to do much but worry. Welcome to the club’you’re anxious.
Fear is a familiar idea. For example, you’re dangling off a cliff by your fingertips; a hulking Rottweiler is growling and coming toward you; you’re alone late at night deep in the woods and you hear a strange sound’what else are you going to do in those situations but be afraid? Fear, unlike anxiety, has a specific external source. Anxiety, on the other hand, might have its roots in something specific like taking a test in school, getting bad news at work or reading about one world crisis or another, but the overriding characteristic of anxiety is that it’s general and not tied directly to a single source. Psychologists often refer to anxiety as ‘free floating.’ Another characteristic of anxiety is that it’s widespread’everyone is afflicted, from teenagers with concerns about self-image and social acceptance to middle-aged executives pondering the meaning of their lives. Everyone is subject to bouts of anxiety, and have no doubt about it, anxiety can be very uncomfortable.
Anxiety is often seen as the result of stress, and what’s important to realize is that this emotional response is at least partially under our control. For starters, we all need to understand that our emotions and our behavior are related. Some people might cry in response to anxiety, and others might overeat. Some, the smartest of them all, hit the weights.
In classical psychological theories, anxiety was seen as a ‘drive,’ which meant the affected person was aroused and primed to do something. Unlike a depressed person, who slides into lethargy, anxious people are wound up’they might pace, talk incessantly or fidget. Rather than just letting the nervous energy deplete your resources and make you feel lousy, why not channel it into a constructive activity, like working out? Seize it as an opportunity’consider it bonus fuel for a training session.
Even if you accept the idea as sound, it’s sometimes hard to implement. Here are some suggestions to help you make it a success. First, make sure that you begin your workout with easy movements and easy weights’it’s not the time to decide you want to learn how to do squat snatches or go for a P.R. in the clean and jerk. It is, however, a great time to do spot-perfect squats, curls or just about anything else you like. Aerobic exercise is also very well suited to periods of anxiety.
Pick an initial movement that you like. Try to block out everything but training, and consciously move slowly through a warmup routine that’s even more systematic than the one you usually use. Actively cultivate a sense of measured purpose’you may be in the world’s rattiest gym, but try to get in the frame of mind you’d assume in a great cathedral.
If you do things right, your mood will improve quickly, but don’t think about it; instead, just focus on your training and let your thoughts and feelings take care of themselves. As you start to feel better, you can hit the gas a little harder and let your workout evolve toward heavier weights and tougher movements, but don’t push it. What’s vital is that you start gradually and end by notching up a rock-solid workout that leaves you feeling better and more energetic. If you’re more of a lifter than a bodybuilder, remember that missed lifts make you feel bad and successes make you feel good. So be sure to choose weights that will give you virtually 100 percent success; save your misses for another day.
Be sure to finish the workout by reinforcing what just happened. Acknowledge how good you feel, what a good workout you had and that the good feeling is the result of the good workout. Have your favorite protein drink, knowing that you’ll be bigger and better tomorrow.
When the United States surgeon general officially tells the world that exercise ‘appears to relieve symptoms of’anxiety and improve mood,’ you can bet that the idea is no longer the exclusive domain of the lunatic fringe. So the next time you’re anxious, do yourself a favor and hit the gym’tap the nervous energy, and focus it on your training. Chances are better than good that your mood will improve almost immediately, and the longer term results of your training will make you feel even better. Don’t worry: Work out!
Editor’s note: Randall Strossen, Ph.D., edits the quarterly magazine MILO. He’s also the author of IronMind: Stronger Minds, Stronger Bodies; Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks and Paul Anderson: The Mightiest Minister. For more information call IronMind Enterprises Inc. at (530) 265-6725 or Home Gym Warehouse at (800) 447-0008, ext. 1. Visit the IronMind Web site at www.ironmind.com.