Just when you think you’ve followed every textbook recommendation on combating your anxiety, you find yourself faced with your old foe in one of the more unlikely situations. It’s in the middle of your first aerobics group exercise class, the one recommended by your friend who said the instructor was approachable and the exercise routines weren’t too hard. You’re not sure what triggered the sudden and sharp intake of breath, but just when you thought you were going to make it through the work out, it hits you. Suddenly and without much warning you’re experiencing a panic attack and after your session you decide that maybe the group dynamics of the class wasn’t for you.
Since you’re persistent and want to conquer your anxiety, you don’t rule out exercise just yet. In fact, you decide that maybe a solitary and intimate workout is better for you. You stick to the basics and decide to picking up jogging. The setup seems perfect, you decide to run in the mornings when the neighborhood or park is empty and when you’ll truly feel like you’re alone. On your first run, you’re only 3 minutes in and suddenly your heart rate quickens, your breathing becomes shallow and the sharp inhalations act as an alarm system for what is to come. Anxiety seizes your body and you experience yet another panic attack.
That’s it, you decide. The experts lied about exercise, it didn’t make you feel any better about your state of mind. It only triggered your panic attacks and constantly reminded you of your anxiety. If exercise was supposed to act as an alleviator for your stress, why wasn’t it working for you?
Often times exercise is recommended for individuals who suffer from stress or anxiety because it releases ‘feel good’ hormones or endorphins that help stabilize mood and make individuals ‘feel better’. These feel good hormones mean nothing however, if proper exercise activity cannot be achieved.
Experiencing panic attacks during a workout is very common among individuals who are deconditioned or who are partaking in exercise that is outside of their body’s comfort zone. Being deconditioned does not just include anyone who has never performed a workout, but also include individuals who have a state of lost physical fitness that include muscle imbalances, decreased flexibility and a lack of core and joint stability. Considering a majority of the population follows a sedentary lifestyle that includes spending a long period of time in a seated position – many of us are deconditioned.
But how does this relate to your exercise induced panic attacks?
Any individual who is deconditioned or trying out a new workout will often suffer from muscle instability, improper form and structure, and poor posture. When a workout is too hard or the body performs an exercise incorrectly, the individual can experience dysfunctional breathing.
Dysfunctional breathing is a very common indication of a deconditioned state or that the body is working harder than it can (or is used to). Due to the breathing pattern of dysfunctional breathing is often associated or confused with high stress and/or anxiety.
An individual who has an episode of breathing dysfunction can experience the following scenarios:
- The breathing pattern becomes more shallow the instead of primarily using your diaphragm for inhalations, the body derives most of its air from the upper chest. The muscles in the upper chest area become overused and causes a habitual (and bad) breathing pattern.
- These same muscles in the upper chest region play a major role in your posture. When your body goes for dysfunctional breathing, these muscles redirect from their primary role (postural support) to aiding in your shallow breathing. This results in loss of support for your neck and skull, leading to headaches, lightheadedness and dizziness.
- Short shallow breathes can lead to an inefficient diffusion of carbon dioxide and oxygen, altering the contents of these two gases in your body. This triggers various sensors in your body, redirecting your body’s responses/priorities.
- The combination of the aforementioned can lead to feelings of anxiety that will in turn trigger an excessive breathing response and ultimately a panic attack.
- The inefficient diffusion of oxygen and carbon dioxide can lead to metabolic waste within muscles that will cause them to stiffen or become fatigued.
- The shallow, sharp and improper breathing pattern contributes to inadequate join motion of the spin and rib cage which can result in joints becoming restricted and stiff.
In short, dysfunctional breathing leads to a decrease in functional capacity that result in headaches, fatigue, restlessness, poor circulation and feelings of anxiety. It is not necessarily the exercise that is inducing a panic attack, in fact you aren’t necessarily experiencing a panic attack – just a series of patterns and movements that are very similar to it.
Dysfunctional breathing can be a sign that you are not ready for that level or intensity of a workout. It can also indicate that there are underlying health risks relating to your cardiorespiratory system. If the latter is the case it’s recommended to seek a medical professional for assistance.
If dysfunctional breathing is merely due to being deconditioned, then it’s best to pick up simple and easy workout routines. Breathing is an essential part of proper exercise. Participating in activities such as Yoga or Pilates can be extremely beneficial for the beginning or revisiting exerciser due to these activities focus on functional breathing while in motion. After you have mastered breathing while in motion, then you should consider moving onto more intensive or demanding exercise routines. Seeking guidance when embarking on new activities is always recommended and if not obtaining the advice of a healthcare professional, consider visiting a personal trainer or a facility that offers one-on-one attention to help you progress in your newly acquired active lifestyle.