I’ve had a couple of panic attacks this week and both (at least partly) took place at the gym. I learnt a valuable lesson here about the answers always being more complicated than I pretend they are (I have to re-learn this on a regular basis). I had been counting down to the gym re-opening as though it would solve all my mental health problems. True, I always do feel better when I exercise, and the gym can often give me some much needed structure, but obviously it’s never that easy.
The gym I go to used to be an LA Fitness Gym, but has re-opened following a refurbishment as a Pure Gym. It’s taking me a little while to adjust to the changes, and some of the things that they’ve changed have made using the gym a pretty anxious experience for me.
For example, the free weights are set up all wrong for women (or rather, for women who are not particularly strong, like me). The dumbbells in the free weights section with the benches start at 10kg. That’s okay for some exercises, but to do a routine like I had before I have to keep walking to opposite sides of the gym so I can also make use of the smaller dumbbells for things like lateral raises and bicep curls. The are also only one set of the smaller dumbbells so I’ve often found myself having to pause or adapt my workout because somebody else is using the weights I want.
Turns out, I’m not very good at adapting when I’m already out of my comfort zone. So I’ve been spending a lot of time at the gym unable to choose what to do, flitting between different exercises but not doing anything “enough” or “properly”, and then eventually bursting into tears and struggling to breathe. It’s a little bit embarrassing.
But it’s got me thinking (afterwards, when I regain the ability to think) about what prompts these episodes. What am I so scared of?
My greatest fear, the one that causes me to freeze, to panic, to go into full on hyperventilating tears mode, is getting it wrong.
When I was at school, I didn’t get it wrong very often. In fact, there were only three occasions where a teacher told me off for anything, and I remember them vividly. The shame, the awfulness, and yes, the panic and the tears. I was such a goody-two-shoes that I have never learnt to deal with criticism or with being wrong, without descending into full on toddler tantrum. As I said, it’s pretty embarrassing.
One of my gym melt-downs was prompted by my husband suggesting it would be easier if I turned the bench the other way. My brain said “You’re using the bench the wrong way! You stupid person! You’re doing it ALL WRONG.” I felt terrible.
More generally, my gym anxiety at the moment is linked to not knowing what to do, and the fear that I might be DOING EXERCISE WRONG.
Historically, I have worried about:
- Eating the WRONG FOOD
- Wearing the WRONG CLOTHES
- Saying the WRONG THING.
- People thinking that I’m stupid because my driving/drawing/presenting/skiing/cooking/washing up is terrible (I basically fall apart when anyone watched me do anything).
- Doing DATING WRONG.
- Having the WRONG HAIR CUT
- Not being able to sing (I only once sang aloud in front of my friends. We were 15 and on a Duke of Edinburgh training weekend, walking though a woodland and singing to pass the time. I joined in. One of my musical friends told me I was flat. I still feel the shame and have mimed in group singing situations ever since).
- Making the WRONG DECISION about anything.
Rationally, I understand that most of these don’t have a right or wrong. But emotionally, I feel there is, and I’m not sure how to get over that.
I also understand, that nobody else really gives a shit about what I eat or how I dress or have my hair cut. But this doesn’t stop me feeling anxious that everybody is judging me ALL OF THE TIME.
Hopefully talking about all of this will help me to see it as the ridiculousness that it actually is. But I find that, when I start down the anxiety spiral that leads to a panic attack, that I cannot break out of this mode of thinking. I’ve done CBT. I know that I should be able to break this cycle. But saying “you need to break this cycle” isn’t really good enough. I still don’t understand how. If anybody has any advice, I would love to hear it.
On that note, I had my letter though about the treatment that I’ve been put forward for. I’m a little disappointed that it’s CBT again, when I’ve told my doctor and my “Psychological Well-Being Practitioner” that it didn’t help me before. Also a little disappointed that they very clearly state that “We don’t provide individual therapy or counselling. The emphasis is on reducing the impact of your current symptoms, rather than addressing longstanding, underlying problems.” Surely, if they only address people’s symptoms and not the cause of these symptoms, they spend loads of money re-treating people whose symptoms have started expressing themselves again? It must be better for everyone to treat the “longstanding, underlying problems”?
But I keep going, one step at a time, learning as I go.