“Calm” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when stepping foot in a weight room, more often than not teeming with swole, sweaty gym bros. But as I set up the barbell for squats, usually the first lift of my workout sessions, I already start to feel relief rippling over me.
The physical weight of the iron on my upper back anchors me mentally, directing my entire attention to moving through each repetition. Inhale, squat, hold, release, exhale. One. Inhale, squat, hold, release, exhale. Two. And so on—until the end of the set. My monkey mind stills and enters an almost meditative state.
Besides helping me gain strength and muscle, lifting has also helped me manage my generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Lifting silences my internal chatter and teaches me to savor the process of working out. Feeling physically strong also helps me feel mentally and emotionally strong enough to face any challenges I encounter. I lift weights at least three times a week, usually in the evenings after work.
My sister introduced me to lifting about seven months ago. I signed up for a gym membership and started following a 12-week strength training plan for beginners. I didn’t anticipate the mental health benefits; up until then, I was an avid distance runner mainly seeking to challenge my body in a different way.
At around the same time, my anxiety had hit a peak, pushing me to the brink of a panic attack nearly every week. After the insecurities it triggered culminated in an angry meltdown with my partner, I finally took my therapist’s longtime suggestion to explore medication. I saw my primary care doctor, who diagnosed me with GAD and started me on an anti-anxiety drug.
Lifting hasn’t completely erased all of my anxiety symptoms, but like therapy and medication, it’s a tool that helps me manage it in several ways.
The repetitive nature of lifting also satisfies my need for predictability, as uncertainty fuels my anxiety. When I lift, I know exactly what to expect. I know I’ll move through each rep, over and over, until I finish the set. Repetition gives my restless mind something sturdy to grasp onto. “Anything that’s routinized can be very reassuring,” Antonia Baum, M.D., a psychiatrist in Chevy Chase, Md., and former president of the International Society for Sports Psychiatry, tells SELF. “It’s something you don’t even need to think about. It can take you to a Zen-like, meditative state that quiets the cacophony of anxious thoughts.”
You could compare it to the soothing effects of praying a rosary bead by bead, or fingering kombolói, Greek worry beads, Dr. Baum explains. “These tactile things can be a distraction from, or help discharge, anxiety.” She adds that, as physical symptoms of anxiety worsen, it can cause cognitive symptoms to worsen, and vice-versa, so repetition could also quell anxious thoughts by easing the physical symptoms of anxiety. (The repetitive movement may help slow down your breathing, for instance, and in turn make you feel calmer).
Besides quieting my mind, lifting has taught me to appreciate the process of working out, rather than just anxiously anticipate the physical results. At first, I felt frustrated and embarrassed when I noticed how light I was lifting compared to the fitness influencers I followed on Instagram—then I realized how much longer they had been lifting than I have. Instead of expecting years’ worth of progress in mere months, I focus on what I love about lifting, regardless of my stats: how deeply it connects me to my body, the pleasure of feeling my muscles hard at work, the rush of pride after I push through a hard set. I de-load if I need to, always keeping in mind that this workout is just one snapshot of my overall progress.
“It’s very much about the process and thinking about it as a means—not just as a means to an end,” Dr. Baum says. Focusing on how one specific session feels may help me be more in the moment, while focusing on long-term, unrealistic aesthetic goals could actually cause anxiety—so I don’t think that way.
Lifting has also helped me manage my anxiety by boosting my confidence. Insecurity is a form of the uncertainty that feeds my anxiety; for me, that uncertainty tends to center on my abilities. It makes me second-guess myself and shy away from pursuing what I want. Through lifting, I’ve proven to myself that I’m capable of more than I give myself credit for. Looking at the Google sheet on my phone, where I record my lifts—typically loading on five more pounds every week or two—I feel proud of my steady progress.
Seven months ago, I couldn’t imagine deadlifting nearly my body weight. Occasionally, I experience the thrill of pushing through a mental block and lifting at a weight I initially worried would be too heavy for me. I revel in my newfound strength outside the gym too, celebrating everyday victories like being able to now unscrew tight lids and carry armloads of groceries up my partner’s long, vertiginous driveway. Soft-spoken and standing only a little over 5 feet, I’ve never thought of myself as strong, yet here I am.
Of course, not everyone who deals with anxiety issues will find lifting helpful, but emerging research suggests it could have benefits. A 2017 analysis of 16 studies that looked at the effects of resistance training on anxiety, published in Sports Medicine, found that strength training improves anxiety symptoms. Scientists are still teasing apart how, but the focus I’ve experienced during my workouts may play a role. “[Lifting] can be a focus unto itself that can help reduce the anxious cognition that would otherwise enter one’s head,” says Dr. Baum.
Running has also helped me quiet my internal monologue, and research suggests that it, too, could help reduce anxiety for some people. Again, everyone’s experience is different, but I’ve personally found lifting to be more effective for me. While I enjoy the exhilarating release running provides, lifting demands more of my focus. My mind has a much harder time spiraling into rumination during a lift than during a run.
Exceeding my expectations of what my body can accomplish makes me feel more capable of overcoming challenges in general, even if they seem scary, even if I doubt myself at first.
Dr. Baum has seen similar changes in her patients who routinely engage in strength training, as well as other forms of exercise. “You feel like you could at least metaphorically conquer the world,” she says. “Those worries seem less overwhelming.”
GAD often makes my life seem more threatening than it really is. Lifting makes me feel strong enough to tackle it.