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How to exercise with anxiety

Stefanie Schornsheim 1

I got my first panic attack while being in a hot yoga class.

It felt like my heart stopped for a couple of beats. My chest felt like cramping. I thought I’ll faint and die at this very moment.

The interesting thing was that I did not get the panic attack while my heart was pounding from the workout effort – I got it during a moment of rest BETWEEN the exercises.

Unfortunately, this experience led to me not working out anymore. Whenever I felt my heart beating a bit fast, I got anxious about what happens when it calms down again. Will it „stop“ again? Will I die?

And I was definitely not alone with those feelings. A study shows:

„The physical activity pattern of people with depressive and/or anxiety disorders was characterized by large amounts of sedentary time and low fulfillment of physical activity guidelines.“

Helgadóttir B, Forsell Y, Ekblom Ö (2015) Physical Activity Patterns of People Affected by Depressive and Anxiety Disorders as Measured by Accelerometers: A Cross-Sectional Study. PLOS ONE 10(1): e0115894

I was fogged by my fears, so I did not see that exercising would actually help calm down anxiety in the long run.


The positive effect of exercising has been already proven by various studies. I want to quote an article from Harvard Medical School here, that was really on point:

💡 Moving your body decreases muscle tension, lowering the body’s contribution to feeling anxious. 💡

My therapist always told me that you cannot be both relaxed and anxious at the same time. It’s a contrary muscle behavior. You can either be tense or lose, never both.

Getting the heart rate up also positively impacts our brain’s anti-anxiety neurochemicals. It controls the part of the brain that decides if we’re under a real threat or if the feeling comes from something imaginary.

And the best part: If you’re working out on a regular basis, you’re building up resources that support resilience against stormy emotions.

The following quote got me and makes so much sense! Just think about: When you’re not exercising, it’s easy for you at the moment because you’re not getting exhausted and kind of feel safe. But you’re actually making it harder for your body to stay healthy.

So by fearing the workout, I actually lowered my chances to heal and put even more pressure on my body and brain.

This is hard to digest, right?

I definitely had to get up my ass. But how when I was always afraid something might happen?

It took a while but I found a way to exercise again. Here are the steps that worked for me. If you want to try them, please listen to your body and talk with your doctor or therapist if needed.


I personally started with walking up and down the stairs every day. Some days, I could only do a few steps before anxiety kicked in. But that was fine. I tried again. And again. Until it worked.

It was very important for me to not get my heart rate up too high when I started getting back into exercising. Over a long period of time, I was able to increase it beat by beat to experience that nothing bad will happen to me.

After I felt comfortable walking the stairs up and down, I tried to go out for a walk, later for a run, and much later even for a gym class.

What was really good in the beginning was Yoga, Tai-Chi, Qi Gong, and Pilates. Those contain low-impact exercises that help you get back into the feeling of doing a sport. Always listen to your body and try out different things until you found something you can enjoy.

I signed up for a more luxury gym which was cool in the beginning, but way too expensive for me to keep going

On my way, I tried many different things: dancing, running, weight-lifting, boxing, swimming, spinning, personal training, … Some things resonated with me for a while but then I wasn’t in the mood anymore because there were people in the gym classes I did not feel good around, I did not like the new trainer, or I got bored.

You need to figure out if you feel safer when you work out alone, with a friend, or in public.

I did not enjoy being in public, so I searched for online courses, tried different fitness apps, and youtube videos to exercise from home. This was best for me as I did not need to follow the schedule of another person.

I had the freedom to work out whenever I felt okay to do so. Also, when I had a bad day and anxiety kicked in, I was able to just stop the workout and try again later or the next day without wasting a lot of money on a sports appointment.


Only you can define your goal for yourself. Discuss this with your doctor or therapist and keep in mind that exercising on a regular basis has a big potential to support you on your healing journey and create the life you want to live.

And it works!

Today I am still doing sports with free youtube videos at home. But now, I’m able to get my heart rate up and exercise to High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) three to four times a week. I lost all the weight that I gained from my year without working out, and I also started doing pole dance – something I would never think I or my body would be able to perform.

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