Strength Training To Help Cure Your Anxiety
'The gym is my therapy' , 'The gym is my drug' , 'The gym, cheaper than counselling'
I'm sure you've heard the sentences above before. You've either seen them on Instagram feeds or drunk gym bro tattoo's (Sorry bro, true story), either way it has become quite a common statement to imply that the gym helps people with their troubles, in one way or another.
I'm writing this article to explain why, to back this up with the research behind it, and to help you gain insight and knowledge to help you use strength training as a form of 'release'.
Whether you suffer from anxiety, or whether you don't at all, this article could be of great benefit to you. In fact, if you have never experienced anxiety, this article could be of even more of a benefit to you, as it will give you a first-hand explanation and understanding of how the mind of an anxious person works. As a trainer or coach, this information is invaluable in order to understand and motivate a client who may struggle with anxiety.
Disclaimer, everything I write in this article is a mixture of my personal opinion, statements of anecdotal experiences, and research I have attained online (references included as and when appropriate). I do not have any professional qualifications in Psychology, however I do have over 20 years of first hand experience with anxiety, closely related family members with mental health disorders, and I coach people on a daily basis, this is why I feel confident enough to write and publish my article into the world.
CH 1 - The Emotional Frequency Of Anxiety
Now, you may have noticed I used the word 'release' in the intro above, I did this for a specific reason. The very first thing we are going to take a look at is energy. Energy is everywhere. Everything you know to be real in this world is made up out of energy. Emotions are energy frequencies, and the anxiety you experience is a way of your body channelling that energy frequency.
Believe it or not, anxiety is the same exact energy as excitement. Think about it, every had a coffee that was just too strong?! Or ever underestimated that pre-workout?
You would have either felt anxious or jittery, restless and unable to chill, just like the symptoms of anxiety.
The key is therefore, to alter the way we perceive anxiety, and in order to do that, we have to change our mindset. Mindset is a funny thing. When I first started reading up about cognition and the mind, I used to be under the impression that mind-set was a permanent thing. A fixed state of mind. A lot of people are under the illusion that some people are just born with a 'no fucks given' attitude, and some are just 'weak minded' - Sound familiar? Well let me stop you there. Because nothing could be further from the truth.
Mindset is simply a by-product of your thought process. And a thought process is a continuum. Let me explain. What are you thinking about right now? I bet you that if you start to focus in on your thoughts, 20 other things will pop up within the next few minutes. 'What should I wear to my tinder date?', 'I'm totally having steak tonight', 'I can't believe that b*tch is ignoring me she was online a second ago?!' etc, etc, the list goes on. What I'm getting at here, is that the mind flows from one thought to another, continuously.
As we have learnt, the mind controls your emotions. An example of this, is having an absolute shitty day, you forgot your lunch (hangry), You had to stay at the office late (F'in Mary phoned in sick again so you're stuck finishing double the paperwork before tonight's deadline) and you got splashed in the rain by a bus full of people (Yes, everyone just saw that.) Could today get any worse ?!
Now, think about puppies. Cute fluffy Labrador Andrex puppies clumsily running towards you, jumping on your face and licking you to death. See what I mean? The first scenario probably made you feel like shit (Well, probably not in the case of reading this, probably more of a LOL effect), but then the puppy scenario probably made you feel a little warm inside (providing you're not a heartless pr*ck of course).
So, so far we've established that thoughts control emotions. So back to my original point, mindset. Here's my take on it :
''Mindset is a cognitive thought based reaction and opinion, on how you are meant to feel in any given situation.''
Read that again, it's 'Your opinion', Your choice. Now, for whatever reason you have formed that opinion for (and therefore automatic reaction) throughout your life, is irrelevant. Therapists will often go back to the root of a thought process in order to break it down to the cause of it, in order to then change the thoughts about said situation/event/trauma. It can be helpful to understand the 'why' behind a particular thought, but in my opinion it is not a necessity and definitely not an excuse for you not to work on changingÂ your mindset now.
Here's the interesting bit. (Yes, yes, finally I know I was getting a little too techy there).
''You have to actively change your mindset in EVERY anxious situation.''
This may seem like a lot of work, but the bad news is, there is NO other way. (Unless you want to pop tranquillisers for the rest of your life, also a legitimate option I guess.).
Because your mindset is an automatic reaction to a situation, you need to actively alter the reaction every single time the situation arises. This could be anything, from speaking in public, to going out for dinner, or simply crossing the street, whatever makes you anxious, will be your 'situation'.
The good news is, if done regularly enough, the reaction you choose to replace the anxious one with, will become your new default setting. Therefore your 'new mindset'. This can take a long time or a short time, I can't tell you that. The shift in mindset depends entirely on the individual, and the depth of the anxious thought.
If you want to read more about how to change your mindset, I can't recommend this book enough:
‘’Dare: The New Way to End Anxiety and Stop Panic Attacks“ by Barry McDonagh
It has the most practical solution for altering the way you think about fear.
CH 2 - How Strength Training Saved Me
(Quick note before we get into this chapter, I'm going to be banging on about my life a little bit, but I promise it's relevant to this article! So the deal is, you'll have to put up with my life story for the next 3 minutes or so.)
I've struggled with anxiety and depression throughout my life. It made me grow up at a very young age. At the age of 15 I moved away from home which was a small city called Alkmaar in The Netherlands. I moved to 5 different countries before I turned 22. It was great having had the opportunity to see different places and learn about different cultures, but it also meant starting again every time. A new place always meant having to build myself up from nothing, professionally and socially. I never felt like I could really call any place 'home'. This did 2 things, it made me more adaptable to change, but also more lonely. Loneliness feeds anxiety, and so my cycle of fear fed itself.
When I was 22 I settled into Edinburgh permanently. But even then, my life was quite chaotic. I had a job that didn't challenge me and that I wasn't passionate about, and I was in a very unstable and unpredictable relationship. When I look back, I can say that this was definitely a low point in my life, but it was also necessary for me to change. I remember hearing this quote on Elliot Hulse's Youtube channel, it's always stuck with me:
'In order to change, you either need a miracle, or a tragedy.'
Low points in my life have always been the most useful, the ones that teach me more about myself. Knowing what makes you unhappy, is the best way to figuring out what you want out of life. So I decided I needed to change. I needed to follow my passion in order to be happy, and that happened to be training at the gym. In that time of my life, the only 2 things that gave me relief were lifting weights and music (I've always had a big thing about song lyrics, so I would either find lyrics I would relate to, or write song lyrics myself.).
There's something very cathartic about pushing your body to do things that are physically challenging. Naturally, we always take the easy route, we avoid things that we find difficult. However, something magically changes when your 'will' takes over. You see, the mind controls your body (as we've learnt from chapter 1), and once you 'decide' to push yourself, the only thing that can stop you - is you.
So I threw myself into learning all I could about training. I read and studied the 'Gym Instructor' books and the 'Advanced Personal Training' books before I started my level 2 course, just to make sure I was ready. At the same time, I used all of my free time to learn off of online strength coaches by watching their Youtube channel video's and reading articles. 'Knowledge is Power' and power is what I needed to get myself to where I needed to be.
I started working for a gym after gaining my qualifications, and the rest is history. There's one very important part of the story that happened after this though, now that I had developed myself professionally, it was time for me to work on my personal happiness, my dreams, my aspirations. My goal wasn't too far off of what I had been working on, but instead of learning how to train other people and how to help others reach their goals, it was time for me to become what I had aspired to be.
I had already been into my training for a couple of years at this point, but it was not as structured and focused as I wanted it to be. I knew that in order for me to become stronger I needed a plan, a strategy. The funny thing is, often when you look for something in life, opportunities arise seemingly out of nowhere, like my thoughts were a magnet (There are some very interesting theories out there in regards to this, read the book called 'The Secret' if you are interested in some freaky universe shit).Â
I had been training at an Edinburgh Leisure gym for a while, and I had spoken to a coach there called Dean a couple of times. He sent me over a copy of Jim Wendler's 5/3/1/ book, and I started working with the 5/3/1/ programme. Having something to follow, some structure to my training, was a game changer. After working on that for a while, I knew I needed to take it up another level to get me to where I wanted to be. I needed somebody who knew about powerlifting, somebody who knew about competitions and the requirements. I needed a Coach. And that's when I decided to start working with Dean.
I worked with him for just under a year before I entered my first 'Powerlifting Competition'. I won gold in my category which was the under 63's with a 110KG squat, 57.5KG bench and 112.5KG deadlift. I had reached my goal. I had finally become a 'Powerlifter'.
So far, throughout my strength journey there has been 1 thing that has been so apparent to me, that 'The stronger I get physically, the stronger I get mentally'. In the next chapter we will discuss my theories, and the research behind this.
I can tell you for a fact, that if I hadn't decided to follow my passion, my dream, that I would not be the person I am today. I don't get the same anxiety I used to get back when I was at my lowest, because I've become stronger emotionally. I've developed fortitude.
'Fortitude. The mental and emotional strength in facing difficulty, adversity, danger, or temptation courageously.'
CH 3 -The Fight Or Flight Response
In everyday life, we go through a multitude of different situations, events, and therefore emotions in any given moment. Our 'mood' can change from happy to annoyed in a split second (In my case, usually depending on whether or not I remembered to buy more peanut butter, because I ate it all. Again.). As I have mentioned several times, the mind controls emotions. But how exactly does the mind implement these emotional states? By the secretion of hormones.
The human body makes and circulates around 50 different type of hormones, that all have an individual or overlapping role. I'm not going to bore you with the full list, so here are the important ones relevant to the topic at hand :
Endorphins: Block Pain (Created when working anaerobically)
Serotonin: Sociable Hormone (Also created in low intensity aerobic exercise)
Dopamine: Pleasure Hormone (Goal Oriented)
Oxytocin: The Love Hormone (Physical contact)
Cortisol : (The main stress hormone, can regulate metabolism and helps control blood pressure)
Epinephrine : (Also known as Adrenaline, the Fight or Flight Hormone)
Norepinephrine : (Neurotransmitter, sends signals)
Note how 'endorphins' show up both on the 'Happy' and the 'Stress Hormones' lists. All of these hormones affect the way we feel, in order to affect our behaviour. For example, endorphins are released when you are being chased by a bear, so that you don't feel the pain of the blisters forming on your feet (Total common scenario by the way.) But endorphins are also released when we work out at a medium to high intensity, this stops the pain of the exercise getting in the way of you doing it (Smart brain, all about those gains). So none of the above hormones are necessarily a 'bad' hormone, it's all about the situation we find ourselves in.
There are circumstances in where our hormone levels become unbalanced (The Dutch call this a hormone 'spiegel'Â meaning mirror, I find this quite fitting and a good way to remember that hormones in regular circumstances, are meant to 'even' each other out - just like how a mirror has an even reflection.), these are the circumstances where our 'energy frequencies' get affected and when we experience symptoms such as anxiety.
The level of the imbalance in hormones varies from person to person, some people having milder versions of and less frequent anxiety, and some people in which the imbalance has become somewhat chronic. Some people will benefit from medication, however I believe there is a way to naturally relieve yourself from the symptoms of anxiety. In fact, I strongly believe that even people who use medication to treat anxiety and/or depression, will still benefit greatly from using the bodies natural methods of creating these hormones, i.e through exercise. You want to be in a position where when you come off the medication, (because that should be the aim in most cases) you have already started to create a healthier baseline for 'homeostasis'.
So, as we've seen in the list above, 2 of the 'Happy' hormones get released during exercise endorphins and serotonin. But there's one vital hormone that is going to take up the majority of my explanation or the correlation between strength training specifically - and curing anxiety, and that is dopamine.
CH 4 - Dopamine : The Goal Orientated Hormone
The primal instinct of becoming stronger and therefore more 'Alpha', mixed with the dopamine rush of accomplishment, is greater than any other form of training to me. This level of dopamine differs from person to person depending on the perceived importance of the goal at hand. Strength training is a big part of my life, and therefore I will be biased towards it. Plus the fact that I have seen so many positive changes in the girls and guys I train, namely confidence changes. I bet you that if you ask any one of them, they will tell you the same.
Here's some of my research findings in regards to the role of dopamine below:
Stress and Depression
Exercise is beneficial for alleviating depression, and this is thought to be due to the effect of physical activity on neurotransmitter synthesis. Dopamine may have a distinct role in fighting stress and in countering depression by acting on the limbic system, a part of the brain that is important in emotional response.
Addictions are thought to be due, in part, to the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens -- the "reward" center of the brain. Exercise can boost the levels of dopamine in the brain in these same addictive cycles. We all know people who are "addicted" to exercise. In this way, exercise can create new, positive, addiction pathways that could counter negative addictive behaviors. An article published in "Current Neuropharmacology" postulates that the release of dopamine in exercise can counter amphetamine addiction.
(Livestrong.com by SRIRAM RAMGOPAL Last Updated: Aug 14, 2017)
This second piece below is particularly interesting, explaining the correlation between anxiety and the addiction to anxiety:
Our world is in the midst of an emotional meltdown. I've seen that many people are addicted to the adrenaline rush of anxiety, known as "the fight or flight response" and don't know how to diffuse it.
To quiet anxiety and turn off your flight-or-flight response, it's important to re-train your brain to send chemicals to counteract this powerful biological response. Otherwise, anxiety can become an addiction. In contrast, with a calm biology, you can generate endorphins, the blissful natural painkillers in your body.
So with the information above in mind, we now know that anxiety isn't just simply a 'state of mind' but it can also become an 'addiction'. We feed the anxiety by being and reaction in an anxious way, and by unknowingly making this our 'default setting' we are conditioning ourselves to our 'flight' response.
This kind of sucks right? Don't worry, I wouldn't be giving you all of this bad news if I didn't have a solution for it..
CH 5 - Altering our Fight or Flight response
Confidence allows us to take initiative in many aspects of our lives, whether it's work related, in personal relationships or maybe you just start taking control over your life a little bit more. With that in mind, here's another one of my theories:
''By training your body to get strong, you are actively conditioning yourself to use your 'Fight' response.''
Let's take a look at the difference between our 'fight' and 'flight' responses.
Adrenaline is released
Heart rate increases
The mind gets clearer and ready to 'attack' the situation at hand
Adrenaline is released
Heart rate increases
The ability to think clearly becomes foggy, your anxiety heightens, and you feel the primal need to run and hide
As you can see, the initial 3 stages of the 'Fight or Flight Response' are the same. It is how we then 'perceive the threat' and our ability to 'control or diffuse the situation' that alters our 4th step.
Here is why a stronger body and mind will automatically 'condition' you, to default to a 'fight' response when in a threatening situation:
Your confidence level and 'sense of self' is higher through the accomplishments you've gained in training.
Getting stronger, is accomplishing something only YOU can do by hard work.
Strength can not be given, it cannot be bought, It can only be earnt.
So now that we've learnt quite a bit about the psychology behind anxiety, the explanation of our fight or flight response, and how confidence affects our sense of self, let me get to the main point of this article. (Yes, finally).
In the next chapter, I will teach you how YOU can use Strength Training, as a tool to conquer your anxiety!
My 6 Week Challenge To Conquering Your Anxiety
Step 1: Start a strength based programme
It has to include the following:
It has to be 'achievable' in the sense that it works 'with', and not 'against' your lifestyle factors.
It has to contain selected exercises that work 'with' your body, not 'against' it (Using strengths, and targeting any weaknesses you may have).
It has to be 'progressive' over time.
If you would like to try one of my 'Starter Strength Training Programmes' drop me a message through the CONTACT page and I'll be happy send you one over to try. For more specialised/individualised programming, I also offer online-coaching and remote programming if you are looking for a little bit more help on this front :)
Now back to business, here's the important bit, take note (literally!).
Step 2: Track your training sessions
You need to track, every single workout you do. I want you to note down every set, every rep and every exercise, along with the perceived difficulty or RPE (Rate of perceived exertion) of the movement. This is vital to helping you track your progress, as I always tell my clients; 'We can only learn from and gauge our progression, by looking back'.
As well as tracking your physical performance and progression in the gym, I also want you to track your mental and emotional states.
Step 3: Track your mindset
This is going to be a little bit harder for some of you that don't like to face their emotions, or that simply use the classic denial technique. I know this is going to sound like a self-help exercise, and I'm sorry to break it to you, but it is. The same rule as above applies to our mental well being; We can only see the progress and changes, by looking back.
Here is your checklist of what you need:
- Strength training programme
- Exercise journal/notebook
- Your mindset diary/journal
These 3 steps, are the 3 vital components of 'My 6 Week Challenge'. If you choose to leave 1 out, you may not experience the full benefit or gain the rewards of the programme.
To recap over our plan of action:
You will be tracking your exercise progression on every training day.
You will be taking note of your thoughts, feelings and mindset every day (I find it easiest and most accurate when I write in this journal just before bed time, that way you can simply make this a daily summary.)
That's it. Do the above for 6 weeks, and note the changes in both your physical strength, and your anxiety levels. Now, I am not promising that 6 weeks is enough time for you to feel 'cured' of your anxiety, or that this works for everybody. Some of you may prefer choosing a team-sport or a different form of exercise that you love. The key is finding something that you are passionate about.
I can tell you from personal experience that becoming a powerlifter, to me, has been the most empowering thing I have ever done for my sense of self. I feel stronger, more capable, and more confident in every single aspect of my life.
I genuinely hope that this article has helped you in one way or another, whether it's just because it gave you more of an insight into anxiety, or whether you decided to try and use some of what you have learnt in this article for your own benefit.
If you decided to try my 6 week challenge, I would love to hear from you. I hope that some of you reading this could relate to my stories and explanations throughout the article, and that maybe you have a story of your own 'Strength Journey' that you would like to share with me. As this is my first big article, any feedback is welcome and greatly appreciated!
All of the love, strength, and of course, gains,