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Can exercise make anxiety worse?


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Picture it: You’ve had a bad day, perhaps with panic attacks and overwhelming anxious dread, and the last thing you want to do is exercise after work. But if you force yourself to just get there, is that a potentially harmful situation? Or will the catharsis of a good sweat sesh make everything better?

It depends.

The relationship between working out and minimizing or even preventing feelings of depression and anxiety is one that’s been studied with impressive frequency. But in some situations, especially in regards to the latter, it’s possible that exercise can make anxiety worse and exacerbate your mental state.

Certain types of workouts can worsen how you’re feeling, says Kevin Gilliland, MD, CEO and executive director of Innovation 360, a team of therapists and health pros based in Dallas, Texas that specialize in mental health, addiction, and relationship counseling.

One example he gives is a group class, especially if you struggle with any sort of social anxiety. “Being stuck in a class and not comfortable leaving,” says Dr. Gilliland, can cause anxiety to increase and will take away from the physiological benefits of being active. When you’re working out alone, it’s much easier to call it a day. But when you’re doing downward dog, wedged in between people in a packed class, trying to figure out how to make your escape can add to your sense of dread, and potentially cause an internal panic.

Dr. Gilliland says people with anxiety issues should also be wary of intense cardiovascular exercise.

Dr. Gilliland says people with anxiety issues should also be wary of intense cardiovascular exercise. The physical symptoms that often accompany this type of workout—shortness of breath, light headedness, dry mouth—are similar to what you experience when you’re having a panic attack. The familiarity of the sensations and feelings might work as a trigger and cause you to have or think you’re having a panic attack.

That’s not to say you can never take another spin class or that having a fitfam won’t be in your future. It just means that if you’re prone to anxiety, it’s important to be mindful about your form of exercise depending on your mood. Overall Dr. Gilliland says moderate exercise is a positive thing for most people. But if you’re feeling really anxious, perhaps something simple, like a mindful walk or a quick grounding session, is the better bet.

Confused about whether you’re stressed or anxious? Here’s how to tell the difference. And if you struggle with social anxiety, here are tips on how to overcome it.

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