If you’re someone who works with anxiety, you already know how overwhelming it can be. This is especially true for folks with a history of trauma, but anyone can find themselves being swept up in anxiety.
Anxiety might feel like:
A sense of urgency
Elevated heart rate
Body temperature changes
An inability to sit still; need to move
A feeling of dread or fear
We may have heard that movement can help with anxiety.
In my experience with my own anxiety and in working with clients, I’ve found that movement certainly can be a powerful tool. What we experience as anxiety in the body is often the result of our “fight-or-flight” sympathetic response. If we’ve got some kind of stressor in our lives (and who doesn’t), our system reacts by producing hormones that prepare us to fight, or to run from a potential threat. Those physiological symptoms (heightened heart rate, shallow breath, etc) that feel so awful are actually a weird kind of evolutionary gift to help us deal with the challenge. Of course, if we don’t “use” the energy that comes with this nervous system response, it just hangs around and makes us feel… anxious.
For lots of folks, just adding in more movement can make a tremendous difference, especially if we don’t already have much movement in our lives. It can be as simple as getting in a quick walk around the block, or it might be more structured– a spin class, a game of pickle ball, or a yoga session. If this is what you need, you’ll know it by the way you feel afterward, or even during– there’s often a sense of release, breathing easier, and you might feel calmer, more settled, or in a better mood afterward.
But movement isn’t always the answer.
While getting some exercise can be a quick fix for many people, it’s not a universal solution. In fact, for some of us, a movement practice can actually make us feel MORE anxious.
This is especially true for people who have a history of trauma, but it can happen to any of us. If we’re attending a yoga class and we’re told to pay attention to our bodies, focusing on sensations may increase feelings of anxiety. For example, paying attention to our shallow breath, or noticing the tension in our bodies, can make us feel much worse. “What’s wrong with me?!” we think. “Everyone else is totally fine, but I’m freaking out!”
If you’ve had this experience, you might benefit more from a practice that doesn’t ask you to dive so deep into this inner awareness– what we in the industry refer to as “interoception.” Instead, I would encourage you to focus on external stimuli or sensations, like hearing sounds or listening to music; taking in the sights with your eyes; or focusing on sensations like feeling muscles engage or feet on the floor.
It’s not always as easy as it sounds.
For many people, finding the right kind of exercise can be a problem, especially if we live with chronic pain or have mobility challenges. Many of us don’t feel comfortable or welcome in certain spaces. Additionally, social anxiety can make it incredibly difficult to try something new. We may have fears around being with others; looking foolish; not having “the right body,” etc. Financial or time challenges can prevent us from engaging in structured movement practices or spaces. And going for a walk may not be a safe possibility where we live.
Exercise can also mimic the effects of anxiety or stress.
We should also bear in mind that exercise is inherently stressful. When we move our bodies to exercise, we may find that our breath is more shallow, our heart rate goes up, and our body temperature changes. Sound familiar? Yep, these are the same effects we might feel when we’re experiencing stress or anxiety. This can feel so uncomfortable that some people would prefer to avoid it completely.
If this is something you’re experiencing, I’d encourage you to try to find a movement activity that you enjoy. Love dancing with friends? That’s great movement. Slower walks in nature? Totally legit. The most important thing is that it feel right for you.
If anxiety has prevented you from finding a movement practice that works, there’s hope.
It can be really helpful to find a coach, trainer, teacher or gym who knows how to support folks who have anxiety or a history of trauma. You’ll want to find someone who knows how to work in a thoughtfully paced way that doesn’t push too hard, dive too deep, or work through overwhelming experiences. This doesn’t mean that you won’t get to “work hard”– but that you won’t be pushing past your body’s boundaries when it’s not safe to do so! Truly accessible spaces that welcome diverse bodies (and are not simply focused on “getting fit”) are a great place to start.
Finally, it’s really important to remember that a movement practice may be helpful, but is not a replacement for mental health support. I always recommend having separate, qualified mental health resources to help address the psychoemotional experiences that arise when we start working into the body.