How My Anxiety Kept Me from Entering the Gym
Last year, I joined a gym. It was shortly after a big change in my life career-wise, and I needed an outlet for the stress. Even though I was already running and doing body-weight exercises at home, it wasn’t enough. I was also thinking about becoming a personal trainer so I figured what better way to find out if that was a good path than to join a gym.
I hadn’t been a member of a gym for about 15 years. But I kept in decent shape over those years through running, home fitness equipment and being active. And when I joined again, I was in the best shape of my life in my mid-40’s.
So going to the gym shouldn’t be that big of a deal for someone like me right?
My anxiety and insecurity started when I was a child. But back then, I didn’t know what it was. There was no internet or WebMD to look up what you may be experiencing. And, being a boy, you sure as hell didn’t talk about your feelings. So I dealt with it — inside my head.
The anxiety and insecurity started with how I looked.
I’ve always liked being active since I was young and I’ve been blessed with good genes which have aided me in remaining thin. I loved playing all sports as a kid, but basketball was my favorite — and I played every day. In the heat, snow, rain, and dead of night, I played.
But I was skinny. Now I know many people out there would love to be skinny, but for me, I was too skinny. And it made me insecure.
Like people who are overweight may be ashamed, people who are skinny can also be ashamed. I know they are not the same problems, but I was so skinny, insecure, and embarrassed about my legs, I only wore long pants until about the 6th grade. Even if the temperature was 95° with 95% humidity, I was wearing sweatpants.
Along with being skinny, I have a big nose. It’s an unfortunate combination, and I know others have it worse than I do.
However, the perspective of oneself takes precedence over what others may feel. I can’t understand their situation as much as I can understand my own. And I don’t look at others in the mirror every day like I do myself.
So like many others do, I focused on my problems and appearance. And when you are a child or teenager growing up with anxiety and insecurity, your world can be a nightmare.
I carried that insecurity and anxiety into adulthood. It hid for a while, but it was always there. It wasn’t until I got into my 40s that it returned. This time though, it came back with a vengeance.
The anxiety manifested during my divorce. Along with the anxiety; stress and depression joined the party. Chest pains, sleepless nights, weight loss, and anger also came and stayed well past their welcome.
But I learned to deal with them — mostly by holding it all in and numbing everything with alcohol. Yet, I still ran and worked out here and there.
However, when my job situation changed, it forced me to make a change. So I joined the gym.
I’ve been a member of gyms in the past, but like many people, you go a couple of times right when you sign up, then never go again. That was me. So I was familiar with the gym atmosphere.
I knew what gym I wanted to join right away — it was close to my house and open 24 hours. Perfect! I could go when it was not busy and save myself the embarrassment of looking like someone who doesn’t know what they are doing.
Sign up was easy, and the owner was friendly. They gave me a tour of the place, but I remember little of what he showed me because I was too worried about what others were thinking of me taking the tour. I hadn’t even worked out yet, and I was already feeling insecure!
My plan was to go early in the morning when no one was there, get the layout of the place, and get familiar with the equipment. I had a routine already downloaded to my phone, so I knew what to do once I got there. I would plug in my headphones and not worry about what others were doing.
I was prepared.
The First Trip
With my plan in place, I get to the gym before 5 a.m. The gym I joined is accessed by key card only. No matter what time it is, the only way you can enter is with a key card, so they do not allow other members to open the door for anyone. You can see inside the gym from the parking lot so I could tell if it is busy or not, and even though it is early in the morning, there are already several people there. I can handle a few people I told myself. As long as the gym is not packed full, no problem.
But when I get to the door and scan my card, it doesn’t open. So I try it again. And again. Red light each time.
My key card doesn’t work.
I’m standing at the front door looking like an idiot trying to get into the gym I just joined, and everyone inside is watching me. There is no staff at the gym that early in the morning and other members can’t open the door, so I have no choice but to turn around, get back in my car, and go home.
And I’m mortified.
The Second Trip
Even though the first trip didn’t go as planned, I decided to not let it stop me from going back. I already paid for the month, so I’m determined to go. After getting the key card situation resolved, I stuck to my original plan to go early when the gym is mostly empty.
I arrive and park at 4:30 a.m. To my surprise, there are more people than I expected — and the people I see look like professional weightlifters and bodybuilders.
Given the key card situation the day before and the look of the people inside, my insecurity and anxiety explode. And I freak the hell out.
I can’t even get out of the car.
I sit there for what seems like an eternity and question everything. What am I going to do? What if I go in and they all stare at me? If I look like I don’t know what I’m doing, will they laugh at me? Do I belong here?
At that moment, the anxiety, fear, and insecurity took over and crippled me.
I was broken.
So I started my car and headed back home.
The Aftermath And Third Trip
After the second trip, I was miserable. I have always been hard on myself, but the negative self-talk I experienced afterward became a megaphone in my head — and it wouldn’t go away.
What the hell are you doing? Why are you so scared? You can’t even get out of the damn car! How in the hell are you going to be a personal trainer if you can’t even step inside of a gym? You are a loser!
You are worthless.
I even proved I was worthless again on the next trip. This time though, I didn’t even park. I drove through the freaking parking lot straight back home. Back to the negativity and worthlessness. Back to a life stuck in my head.
And the cycle of beating myself up continued.
It seems like such a simple thing to do, right? Go inside the gym, hit a few machines, maybe do some cardio and go home.
But when you have crippling anxiety, doing those things is like climbing Mount Everest with no equipment in the worst part of winter. Naked.
Anxiety feels like the power of a thousand suns are shining right on you — but no one else.
Anxiety feels like you are a comedian up on stage getting laughed at mercilessly, but you are not telling any jokes.
Anxiety feels like twenty auctioneers having a bidding war inside your head.
And all four of the above things are happening at the same time.
Everyone worries, and there are many who have anxiety. But crippling anxiety is a different experience. I’m sure there are others who have it worse than I do. And some of you reading this probably think I’m crazy. I thought I was crazy.
But I would not wish this type of anxiety on my worst enemy.
Along with the depression I was experiencing, it was debilitating. For the next month, this cycle continued. Most of the time, I didn’t even make it to the parking lot. I came up with every excuse I could to not go to the gym.
And I would never talk to anyone else the way I talked to myself that month. If words could kill, I would have died several times.
But I had to choose. Either I take control or I let the insecurity and anxiety control me. Either I continue down this path of feeling worthless or I change. It was now or never.
It was obvious I needed a new plan since the one I started with would not work. So I kept it simple.
I’m a runner. I run outside all the time, and the anxiety is never present when I run no matter how many people are around. Anxiety is a tricky little bastard like that sometimes. But running is a sport with an incredible, supportive community, so there is never any worry of being judged. Since I’m used to running all the time, it gives me confidence.
The solution was right in front of me. I know how to run. I need no special knowledge or a workout plan like I do with weights. So I decided my next trip to the gym would be spent on the treadmill and I would do nothing else. Get in, run, and get out.
I just had to get past that door.
I had my plan for what I would do while inside, and I decided I would go late morning since early did not seem to work. But the hardest part was getting through the door.
That door may as well have been the gates of hell. Because that door represented something sinister. Not within the gym, but within me. That door kept me trapped inside the gates. And that door was the only thing leading me out of my personal hell.
So I went. I drove to the gym and parked like I had several times before — and without hesitation, I got out of my car, walked to the gates of hell, and opened the door.
I’d like to tell you while inside I broke all kinds of weightlifting records, ran a marathon on the treadmill, gave high-fives and fist bumps to everyone, and was cheered on the whole time. I’d like to tell you I was showered with confetti and glitter and given awards. But none of that happened.
In fact, nothing happened. Besides a few people glancing my way when the door clicked open, no one else noticed I was there. There was no laughing, no pointing, no staring. I put my keys and other personal items away, ran on the treadmill for a while, then went home.
It was uneventful. Anticlimactic.
And even though nothing happened within the gym, everything happened within me. I changed. From that one trip inside the gym, my world opened. That one trip led to multiple trips. Four and five times a week. It led to making friends inside the gym and building confidence. And it led to a transformation.
It led to me realizing many of the things I imagined in my head weren’t likely to happen. It led to a new me.
By now those who thought I was crazy earlier probably think I’m insane. Especially if you’ve never experienced anxiety. That’s okay if you think of me that way. I don’t care.
But I wanted to give you an idea of what anxiety feels like. This story is the best way I can describe it — and those descriptions still don’t do it justice for some whose anxiety is worse than mine.
Those of us who experience anxiety build up these events in our mind until that is all we think about. We come up with worst-case scenarios that would be hard to make up even with the most vivid of imaginations. And we do it over and over and for everything until it cripples us.
That is anxiety.
I know I’m not alone in fearing the gym or having anxiety about mundane activities which others take for granted. Many of you are like me. You let the anxiety and insecurity stop you from even getting started. It stops you from even signing up! I was there once.
I thought about giving tips on getting yourself into the gym if you have problems like I did — but they wouldn’t help. Because I followed all kinds of tips I found on the internet and you read how those tips turned out for me.
It wasn’t until I conquered myself that I could get that door open. It was only when I faced my anxiety head-on that things changed. I can give you all kinds of advice, tips, and tricks. But it won’t matter.
Because you have to choose to change yourself. You have to take action yourself. Nothing I say or do will get you inside that gym or overcome anything else. It is up to you and only you to make that decision.
But you are never alone. There is always someone who is going through the same thing as you. And there is always someone who has conquered what you are going through.
Through various means, I now have better control over my anxiety and insecurity. I am a completely different person than I was a year ago. Anxiety and insecurity will always be with me and I’m sure they will rear their ugly head from time to time, but I know how to deal with them. They are losing the battle — and I will not let them win.
Thank you for taking the time to read this piece. It is my longest article so if you stuck with it until now; I appreciate you.
This was originally published in April and received little attention. It is one of my favorite articles I’ve written. I know some of you have read it, but I felt it was important to Recycle so others may see it. It has been edited and improved, and the original story deleted.
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