By Chris Rigby.
It is no secret that modern life is hectic. Even the chillest of us has something to worry about, work, family. Then there is the array of labels that BS society dictates we should be thicc, thin, married, successful (whatever that means). Ultimately all our lives come with anxiety, self-inflicted or otherwise.
The gym is where we go to escape these troubles, to vent our frustrations, and take out our aggression on a barbell. Not only is exercise good for our physical health, but it also helps regulate dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin, chemicals key in fighting depression.
Unfortunately, there are times when the anxiety we desperately try to escape by going to the gym comes creeping into the weight room. Until recently, this was something I have struggled with. But over the last couple of months, I have begun to address these issues and have developed a few tips that I felt are worth sharing.
Before we get into all of the detail, here is a little more about me, just for some context. Typically I hate talking about myself, but this is important, so indulge me. Powerlifting is something I have been doing for fun for the past eight years. I know countless people who consider exercising a chore, so I consider myself lucky to have found a sport that I love enough to do four times a week. I was born without a competitive bone in my body, so I rarely compete. Regardless of what Instagram may tell you, your numbers only matter to you. To anyone outside of your sport, they mean less than nothing. Tell your Gran you can bench 50kg or 250kg, and her reaction will probably be the same.
With this hands-off approach to powerlifting, you would think that I was a Buddhist monk. The truth is I am not. I am my own worst enemy. I find it very easy to get into my own head and second guess myself, a mentality that has cost me many a lift. I have had deadlifts stay glued to the floor when 10kg ago it flew like nothing, and have given up halfway through a set of squats because another three reps felt impossible. I was trapped behind a barrier, not based on genetic potential or fatigue, but a mental barrier of my own making.
Such ‘mistakes’ not only made me feel anxious, they followed me around the rest of the day. I would beat myself up for not finishing a lift I knew I was capable of doing. It became a vicious cycle. Whenever I saw a heavy weight on the bar, I knew I would fail, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself. My progression stalled, made all the more frustrating by it being a limitation I had built.
Coming back after lockdown, having spent the better part of 18 months lifting little over 40kg, I was eager to hit the gym, see my friends and get back to shifting some heavy weight. Knowing that I could not go back to being afraid of the weight on the bar, I spoke to my coach, and together we came up with some techniques to deal with my anxiety.
That is me in a nutshell. Now onto the good stuff, the tips and techniques that have helped me personally overcome my anxiety when faced with a particularly heavy lift.
Admitting you have a problem
Think of it as writing a character in a story. Naming a character transforms them from an abstract concept into a real, tangible person. Anxiety is no different, by acknowledging that you feel anxious it becomes something you can begin to control.
This is a really underestimated tool. Often, when a weight wouldn’t move, I was asked, “what went wrong?” My response was a shrug of the shoulders, an idle “I don’t know”. Maybe I was too afraid or embarrassed to admit it. Still, once I acknowledged what I was feeling was anxiety, it became a lot easier to manage.
Eliminate ‘Background Anxiety’
As great as the gym is for blowing off steam, it can also be a huge source of what I call ‘background anxiety’. Gyms can be crowded, noisy, toxic places where you feel the constant pressure to hurry up, so some chicken-legged gym bro can do cheat curls in the squat rack.
Gyms are meant to be a safe space, and if yours is the one that perpetuates obnoxious lad culture, then honestly, they are not worth your time. However, commercial gyms are cheap and convenient. Not everyone has the time or the money to pay for a monthly membership at a private gym.
If you are one of these people trying going to the gym when it is at its quietest. Either early morning or late at night. Or, if you can, hit that 9-10 am sweet spot when all the students are in bed, and the fitness freak businesspeople are on their commute. If your gym tends to blast loud club music or heavy metal, bring headphones. They are a lifter’s best friend and can help you centre yourself. If you’re really anti-social, they are a great excuse to ignore that one gym creeper that is always trying to talk to you.
The Power of Music
As has been talked about on this blog before, music is a great tool to get into your zone, a way to block out any distinctions, and remain focused on the task of moving big weight. There is no correct answer when it comes to music. The stereotypical powerlifter technique of blasting 90s metal never worked for me, and the last thing I want before attempting a heavy squat or bench is someone screaming in my face. Typically I choose something peaceful, but my music taste varies depending on the day and my mood. One session, it’s Tyler the Creator, the next it’s rain noise and The Whisper of the Heart soundtrack (yes, my taste in music is that weird). Regardless of what genre it may be, the point of music is to eliminate distraction and keep your mind from wandering into a negative space.
Have a Totem
I’m stealing this idea from Christopher Nolan’s Inception here, so bear with me. In Inception, characters jump between reality and dreams. Each character has a totem, an item of significance that helps them distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Applying to this when you start to feel anxious, have something that can pull you from that bad mental space. It can be anything. For me, it is my wireless earphones. Even without music, they drown out background noise and also give my ears a comforting hug.
Again the point is to find something that suits you. Your totem can be small, a fidget spinner, stone or crystal you can hold in your hand to distract you. Or it can be a gym buddy that can recognise when you feel anxious and help pull you out of it.
Accessories and variations are your friend.
If a specific lift triggers your anxiety, try and identify what about it causes you stress. Is it the weight of the bar on your back, the eternal void of time between pulling the slack from the bar and it coming off the floor? Once you have identified the issue, find some accessories that can help combat the problem. I’ve had great success with heavy walkouts for my squat. While a combo of block pulls and hook grip, have helped me deal with being slow off the floor and grip failure. Such exercises are a great confidence booster and can help you overcome any mental barriers.
When all else fails?
No matter how hard you try, there will be days when anxiety and stress inevitably occur. So what do you do when all the above tips don’t quite work? Take deep, calming breaths and acknowledge that what you are feeling will eventually pass. Allow the anxiety to subside, and then continue with your lift.
If all else has failed, do not be afraid to move on. If the weight is not moving, then it is not going to move. You should feel no shame in dropping the weight a little and carrying on, or if it is causing you that much stress, leaving it entirely and carrying on with the rest of your workout. There is always the next session. Training is meant to be fun, so don’t lose sleep if the stress of your workday causes you to miss a rep. It is not the end of the world.
Hopefully, my tips will help bring your anxiety under control. While stress can never be entirely eliminated, these techniques can mitigate their effects to a negligible degree, keep you in a safe mental state and give you the confidence you need to smash PB’s and make your fitness journey more enjoyable.