Fit Versus Fear

Social Anxiety Help

Larry Cohen, LICSW

Fit Versus Fear

Beating anxiety about your ”before” body may be the first step to a new you

by Yuseph Najavi
Metro Weekly

People are often motivated to get their bodies to a gym by looking at the ”before and after” photos of the success stories. ”If he can do it, so can I,” might say the out-of-shape wannabe. Then comes the rub: How will you feel stepping into a gym for the first time with your ”before” body? Sometimes that fear alone may be enough to sabotage those Hydroxycut dreams.

Taking baby steps and setting small goals, such as just making an initial visit to a gym — even if you’re there for only five minutes — is a good approach, says Larry Cohen, a local, licensed clinical social worker specializing in anxiety issues.

”Anxiety is … a self-protective mechanism in our brain that we’re all born with. The problem is sometimes it goes haywire, because we perceive ourselves to be in some form of danger when we actually aren’t.”

Cohen says anxiety about gyms is a social anxiety.

”With social anxiety, we’re greatly magnifying the danger in our minds. Usually that’s because of a past learning experience.”

If you find yourself avoiding the gym because of what other people might think of your appearance, Cohen says your problem stems from a fear of judgment.

”Namely, the fear that other people there who are in better shape, or who are better looking, will see you and think negatively of you, maybe even react negatively toward you.”

Cohen notes that judgment can also come from within.

”Often times, when we see other people that we perceive to be in better shape or better looking, we start to judge ourselves harshly.”

At the gay-owned FIT Personal Training Gymnasium at 17th and Q Streets NW, Michael Everts says you have to keep in mind that you are not alone in being out of shape.

”Most gyms wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for people who were trying to change their bodies or trying to change their health,” says Everts.

”The person who is the fitness expert, advanced at exercising, and looks the part, is really more the exception than the norm. And they stand out for that reason.”

That insight might help in attempting to master what Cohen describes as the ”cognitive solution”: losing the negative attitude.

He suggests working to develop ”a more realistic and helpful attitude” to help combat gym anxiety and fears of judgment.

”The likelihood is people in the gym are really paying attention to themselves or their friends and not others. If somebody is looking at you, chances are they’re attracted to you, not because they’re judging you negatively. And third, if indeed somebody does really judge you, it doesn’t really matter. It says something about them.”

The behavioral aspect of the solution is setting small, realistic goals.

”If they have a lot of anxiety about the gym, the first goal might just be going and looking around,” says Cohen. ”The second goal might be going and working out for as little as five minutes, which I realize doesn’t do much for your body, but can really help reduce anxiety.”

There are other solutions as well, all depending on the type of person you are. For example, going to the gym at a time you know it won’t be crowded. And if you can afford a personal trainer, that may be helpful, says Everts.

”That’s certainly the best option. If you can find a fitness center like ours — a small gym, a limited number of trainers at any time — you’re going to be in an environment where there are going to be very few distractions.”

Throughout the battle of getting to the gym regularly, Cohen says, make sure you support yourself and your new positive attitude.

”Give yourself the kind of positive messages that a caring friend or loving parent would give. Too often we’re criticizing ourselves by comparing ourselves to people that are in better shape. It may be true, but it’s really irrelevant. What matters is the progress that we are making.”

For professional help in treating anxiety, call Larry Cohen at 202-244-0903.

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If you have any questions or comments, please email Larry Cohen, LICSW, with offices in Washington, DC.

Social Anxiety Help is a founding regional clinic of the National Social Anxiety Center (NSAC):