Shalom Obisie-Orlu
May 03, 2018 4:11 pm
Larry Washburn/Getty Images, Anna Buckley/HelloGiggles

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

Last June, I found myself in one of the lowest periods of my life. I was in the middle of facilitating a move across the ocean, and I felt isolated from my friends. My general anxiety soon nastily morphed into social anxiety that all but stopped me from living outside of my room. I hated it, but I didn’t know how to fix it.

During that awful time, I had started to take an interest in fitness, but I only worked out from the place where I spent the most time — my room. Eventually, though, I was no longer challenged.

So, full of gut wrenching fear, I hauled myself to the gym. It was probably the scariest thing I could have done at the time, but I needed to get out of my room. I needed to talk to other people, no matter how hard it was.

After feeling like I had lost all of my power, I decided to gain it back physically.

I started in the women’s only section of the gym with tiny hand weights. I was too nervous to enter the main section of the gym — checking in at the front desk alone nearly threw me into an anxiety attack. After about three weeks of training by myself, I noticed that I was getting physically stronger. Actually seeing positive outcomes encouraged me to start going to the gym more frequently, and each visit required working extremely hard to combat the anxiety I felt.

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I also kept going to therapy to try and find the root of my newfound social anxiety. While I never came to a concrete conclusion, I felt myself getting better. Once unable to talk to anyone at the gym, I could now check in without feeling like I was going to throw up. Those improvements may have been small, but they existed, and my confidence grew. I found myself walking into the main section of the gym, and I started lifting weights that challenged me.

Lifting in a busy gym taught me an important lesson: Most people aren’t looking at you at all.

A lot of my anxiety came from my assumption that everyone was always looking at me. I feared that, no matter where I was, people watched my every move, waiting for me to mess up so that they could call me out. The gym taught me that while I was stressing about what everyone might be thinking about me, they were actually focused on themselves. In general, people are more concerned with their own progress than they are with anyone else’s. Once I began to understand that I wasn’t the center of everyone’s unwanted attention, I breathed easier.

***

Without imaginary eyes on me, I explored my new strength in the best kinds of ways. I hit personal records, never worrying whether or not other gym-goers thought I was pathetic for starting so small. The actual fact remained that they didn’t think that — because they probably didn’t think anything about me at all. Slowly but surely, I reset my default internal monologue — one that had been full of anxiety-fueled self hatred  — to a logical thought process: If I was at the gym to work out, other people were too. If I wasn’t thinking about whatever they happened to be doing, then they weren’t thinking about me either.

By lifting weights and becoming stronger physically, I became stronger mentally.

I am proud and grateful that I got through that rough period in my life. Today, I’m still lifting heavy weights with no fear regarding other people. I’m glad my relationship with the gym focuses on my progress, because I love working on myself for me. I love the strength and confidence I’m gaining, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything — not even for an empty gym.

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