Let’s briefly revisit December 2012, almost three and a half years ago, when three consecutive days of panic attacks took me from a fearless life alone in Washington Heights to a sobbing, nonfunctional heap on my childhood bed. This was one of the most difficult, terrifying periods of my life so far.
In the weeks after I moved home with my first acute round of debilitating agoraphobia, I wasn’t doing much other than lying in terror on my childhood bed and tearfully calling my mother at work every few hours. That was my ground zero. But little by little, following the advice of my doctor, I started to force myself to do a tiny bit of physical exercise each day. It was nothing major; a few sets of ab exercises on the floor, perhaps, or a couple of sun salutations. But this baby step toward taking care of myself was the first achievable goal in a chain of events that would eventually allow me to move out of the house again and return to New York to pursue dance, work, and college.
Physical activity is great for anxiety for several reasons. First, a workout (no matter how small) represents a goal that can be accomplished anywhere, any time. When I first started bringing movement back into my life, I was still to afraid to leave my bedroom by myself. If you’re dizzy, lie down; do leg lifts, crunches, or planks. Yoga-and Pilates-based movement is great, as it’s slow and deliberate, so there’s no need to get frantic or bump your heart rate up if that still feels uncomfortable/scary (though it’s a sensation you can learn to enjoy!). If you’re feeling uninspired, or don’t know very many movements, go on YouTube! There are hundreds of guided workouts, from yoga to hip hop, for all fitness levels. I use it all the time for free, at-home movement ideas.
Second, a workout (no matter how small!!) represents a meaningful accomplishment. If you are housebound, chained to your desk for long hours, or just feeling stuck in a rut, doing something physical (like walking for just five minutes!) is proven to lift your mood, help with feelings of depression and hopelessness, and contribute to your physical health as well. Even if it’s a seemingly minuscule goal– adding five seconds to your plank each week, or walking up and down your driveway twice a day– that bottom line is that you’ve done something, specifically something to help yourself, and that is an achievement to be proud of. Positive self-talk is an important part of this.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, exercise gets you out of your mind and into your body, into the present moment. Simply put, focusing on movement means diverting attention from your own catastrophic, critical, or self-questioning thoughts. It’s inevitable; your brain can’t focus on freaking out if you’re using its power to, say, make sure your knee is completely straight in a leg lift, or moving from your upper abs and releasing your neck tension in a crunch. This is a powerful way to show yourself that freedom from such thoughts is possible. Having even a few seconds where you realize you haven’t been dwelling on anxiety is an incredibly liberating experience. I know, as I’ve been there. In the first few weeks after I came home the one thing I wanted was just a glimpse of a mental state free from anxiety, a moment or two of ‘normalcy’ so I could remember what it felt like, remember that the person I’d been before panic took over was still in there somewhere. Exercise gave me this, and it was the catalyst for the majority of the progress that came afterward.
A few helpful hints:
- Non-judgement is essential. You must begin with a beginner’s mind: anything is better than nothing. When you feel you might be ready for more, work from there; I moved from small bedroom workouts to larger ones, then on to walks up and down the driveway, and finally out of the house to ever-increasing portions of ballet class, my life’s work. It helps to find a form of movement that is meaningful to you in the long run, but begin with the first workout idea that feels possible wherever you are now.
- Non-judgmental noticing is also essential. Notice when your mind is free of worry during a workout, and allow yourself to reinforce that moment with positive self-talk, even if your mind slips almost immediately back into anxiety. You are building habits here, and reinforcing those instances of healthy letting-go will make you brain want to reward itself by doing that more often.
- It may be helpful to write about the experience. Writing creates new neural pathways in the brain, helping to lock in learning and reinforce progress. Write down what you’ve accomplished in your workout, moments that felt like progress and why. Write down how this workout brought you a step closer to living by your values, and how you now have one more thing you know you can do, simply because you’ve done it. When you’re ready, consider how you might bring this mentality into other areas of your life.
Give it a try, and let me know how you feel in the comments!