“When I plug into my iPod and grasp the weights it helps me get a grip on life.” Anthony Doubek lifts weights to lower stress.
Rock music blares in my ears, sweat drips down my body, muscles twitch and my feet ache. A Men’s Health Magazine article lies on the floor in front of me surrounded by resistance bands and dumbbells. This is my happy place, quite literally.
When I first started working out, I was inspired by thoughts of looking like Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man. I sometimes watch those movies as inspiration to hit the gym. What I didn’t realize was that a very different thing would give me a reason to keep hitting the gym multiple times a week.
I suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a very common diagnosis that can pack a punch if left unchecked. On a mild anxiety day I will simply be shaky, irritable and generally unmotivated. On my worst days I can’t get out of bed and have moments where it is hard to breath because all the emotions I am feeling sink into my lungs like cement. Panic attacks can hit me in many different ways. Sometimes they will completely immobilize me for a few minutes or a few hours. Other times I will go on a cleaning spree and hastily try to organize everything in the apartment so that I feel like my life is a little more in control.
I’ve been dealing with this for years now and have come up with various coping mechanisms to help me get through moments of anxiety and panic. But what I have found to be the best preventative measure is exercise.
I was initially inspired to start working out when I came out as a transgender man. I wanted to look like Iron Man and Channing Tatum with the most masculine physique that my body could achieve. I quickly learned that I did not have the time to put in at the gym to look like those guys and I stopped trying. The week after I stopped working out was hell. I was plagued with anxiety and depression and my meds were not helping much. I attributed it to a bad week and moved on with my life.
After doing some research on working out and learning some good tips on how to see results when you have a busy schedule, I got back to the gym and immediately saw a change not only in my physical health, but in my mental health. Realizing that the week of anxiety a few months earlier could be attributed to my sudden lack of exercising, I made a promise to myself to stay in the gym, not so that I could look like Captain America, but so I could keep my mind healthy.
When I got to Washington, DC for summer internships I was unable to get to my gym and was having a hard time coping with not working out. I hadn’t been able to bring my home equipment with me because it was too heavy to fly out to DC with me and I was unsure of what to do other than a ton of push-ups (which was a bad idea since I have bad wrists).
Anxiety quickly set in and started to make it difficult for me to leave work. I knew that as soon as I stopped working I would have to face the mental issues that follow time spent relaxing.
One day, instead of going back to my apartment, I made a trip to Target and bought two sets of resistance bands and a fitness magazine with sections on home workouts. The anxiety melted away and my mental state was stable again.
Working out has been the best medication for my anxiety, but I do have to be careful because there have been times where I have toed the line between working our regularly and obsessively. Earlier this year I was having a very hard time. My life felt very messy, I was stressed out by the amount of work I had to do and I was having a hard time getting to the gym regularly. What ended up happening is that I would work out whenever I had time and would work myself into exhaustion with no real plan as to what I was doing other than to just sweat and work my muscles as much as possible. I also had weeks where I would cut out my rest days all together. These are bad ideas.
Rest days are vital to building muscle. If you don’t rest then your muscles can’t take time to rebuild themselves after your workouts. If you are constantly working out and skipping your rest days you are continuously tearing down your muscles with no time for them to work themselves back up. This can lead to a lot of problems, as you can imagine.
Also, sporadically working out is not a great idea for your mental health; it will have you on a bit of a roller coaster emotionally. I am sure there are physical aspects that are bad about being inconsistent with working out as well, but I am not an expert and have not done research into that yet.
One piece of advice I give everyone that I have a hard time taking myself is, if there is pain stop! I don’t mean the normal pain of just being sore from a workout; I mean pain that is unusual, searing, and beyond general muscle fatigue. If you ignore this pain, it could mean a really serious injury later down the road that will keep you out of the gym for a longer stretch of time. If you’re working out to fight mood disorders, then this is not going to be something you want to deal with.
A great piece of advice I was given by a guy at my gym was mixing it up to get great results. I do a lot of different types of working out. I do general weight lifting mixed with cardio, I do circuit training lifting, low weight—high reps, high weight—low reps and occasionally do crossfit with a buddy of mine who owns a crossfit gym. It’s fun to mix things up and it keeps your muscles guessing so they don’t just get stuck in a rut. It also keeps you from getting bored at the gym and clocking out early.
Something really important to keep in mind is that the guys on the cover of magazines dedicate their lives to the gym and make a living off of the results. If you are a student or have a full time job (or both), it is going to be hard for you to get those results right away. Don’t let that discourage you! I know that it will take a lot of work if I want to look like Robert Downey Jr. but I also know that I can be happy with having the trim athletic build that I have now.
The last two things that I have found to be really important in keeping myself in good shape mentally and physically are research and a clean diet. I read a lot of articles, books and websites about working out, gather tips, new routines and exercises, try them out, and mix them into my time in the gym. When I say a clean diet, I don’t mean I never eat ice cream or enjoy a beer. I mean that when I go to the grocery store to buy the stuff that makes up my meals, it is all pretty fresh, organic, unprocessed and not food that does only requires a microwave to be ready. When it comes to snack food, I avoid junk food and tons of sugary snacks, but I will occasionally indulge, because why not? But after about a year of eating clean and only indulging a couple times a month, it’s not hard for me to fight cravings.
Eating clean is also a tool to keep my mental health in good condition. Plus, it’s really tasty when you learn how to cook and it keeps your skin clear!
Working out has saved me a lot of pain, has helped me lead a more productive life, deal with body image issues that come with being transgender, and has boosted my self-confidence. The release of endorphins that comes when I plug into my iPod and grasp the weights helps me get a grip on life. But it took me a while to find that perfect balance between working out my anxiety and working myself into obsession.
Now, working out is less of a task or drug I have to take to stay calm, but is more of a meditative state that I enter into every week. Hitting the gym is my time to work out all the aggression in my body, to sort through my thoughts and feelings, to sweat out sadness and depression, a time to cleanse my mind. I jump into the shower and let everything wash off my body and mind and emerge ready to take on whatever life has to throw at me.
photo by Jessa9 / flickr