Walking into the weights area at the gym for the first time can be terrifying for a woman. From the over-stimulating grunts and slamming weights to the smell of salt and iron, it can seem like an unwelcoming environment.
Every time I discuss my passion for picking up heavy weights and putting them back down, my friends question my ability to feel comfortable in that intimidating environment. I explain to them that I am simply used to the chaotic jungle that is the gym.
As a young girl, I was forced to go to the gym for my physical well being. I remember the fear that enveloped my body as I would shakily make my way to the weight room — terrified that someone would correct my form or judge me for struggling to lift while those around me excelled. Hiding behind my parents, I would work with them only when I was sure that no one was watching me.
Each day was like exposure therapy as I would attempt to get lost in the music blasting in my earbuds while focusing on the task in front of me — blocking out the movement and noise whirling around while I hid behind baggy t-shirts.
As I grew up, I started to question why my anxiety was so high at the gym. Although a rational sensation for newcomers looking to better themselves, I realized that everyone was focused on themselves at the gym — and if they weren’t, they needed to get a life. When I could feel my anxiety rising, I would constantly remind myself that the people around me were there for the same reason I was. They weren’t there to laugh and make fun of me — they were there to work on their overall health.
The mantras I would chant to myself didn’t work for a long time. I was trapped in a constant cycle of hating myself and being self-conscious at the gym. It was difficult to escape the insecure mentality that I faced daily. However, I found ways to help ease my anxiety.
I started only wearing clothes that I felt confident in. If I felt good in the clothes I was wearing, facing the gym was easier. The saying “look good, feel good” rings true as I slowly found the confidence to be myself at the gym when I invested in how I looked. As shallow as this sounds, it made a sizable difference in how I carried myself on days I wore my favorite workout gear versus when it was laundry day and my favorite clothes weren’t an option.
I also planned out my workouts. In doing so, I took away the possibility of awkwardly standing around at the gym until I could find something to do. I separated my workout days by back and biceps, chest and triceps, shoulders and abs and leg days. When I started planning my workouts, I felt that I was a secret agent on a mission that only I could complete. Staying focused on a goal kept me too busy to think about the people around me.
The last action I would take to lessen my anxiety was dragging a friend to the gym to work out with. Strength in numbers allowed me to feel less singled out at the gym, as the support and reassurance from a friend fueled my confidence. We also kept each other accountable and reminded one another of our health goals.
An easier lesson to say than learn, the gym forced me to stop caring what people thought of me. Although it was terrifying at first, exposing myself to uncomfortable situations like the gym made me mentally stronger in the long-run — pun intended.