The bar is loaded to 275 pounds, sitting innocuously on the floor in front of me. I approach the weight the same way every time, a setup I’ve experimented with and refined over the past decade or so. Set my feet, just about hip width apart under the barbell. Take a deep slow inhale, brace my core, reach down, and grasp the bar. I squeeze my hands around the iron, take the slack out of my arms, and drive my feet into the floor. I lift the weight. I put it down. And repeat.
As a person who has dealt with depression and generalized anxiety disorder for most of my life, I crave structure and repetition, and a ritual of lifting. It provides boundaries and order to a world that I frequently perceive to be frightening and chaotic. Lifting is a sport replete with ritual: putting on gym clothes, going to the gym, lacing up your lifting shoes, chalking hands, setting up with the barbell. Take your breath, brace, execute. Focus on completing the task at hand while eliminating external distractions. The same thing. Every. Single Time.
“Adopting a habit such as weight lifting provides structure, predictability, and tangible rewards—increased muscle gains, increased strength, accomplishment, for example,” says David Klemanski, professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt. People with anxiety typically avoid that which makes them anxious because life isn't predictable, he adds. “Risk is everywhere, and in anxiety, people avoid [things] to reduce risk related to their anxiety. Building positive, structured routines helps people feel better.”
Lifting weights has traditionally been associated with large, sweaty dudes in garage gyms who blast music and use lifting as a way to potentially assert dominance over weaker specimens. But recently there’s been an increased interest in the deep mental health benefits that lifting heavy offers. More people are beginning to discover how strength training can help them boost self-esteem, practice emotional regulation, and reduce stress. Chronic depression and anxiety are both highly individual and complicated issues, and I’m not suggesting that lifting serves as a cure for any mental disorder. However, lifting has both positive biochemical effects and cognitive behavioral benefits which can help an individual manage these negative emotions. They helped me.
“Lifting weights helps to raise endorphins—morphine-like hormone molecules that enter the brain neurons—such as serotonin and norepinephrine,” says Dominique Stephens, biochemist and doctoral candidate at Howard University, who has felt the benefits of lifting himself. “Someone who is experiencing depression would strongly benefit from strength training because lifting makes you happy due to the release of endorphins." While lifting does it for me, these endorphins can also come from running, cycling, and other types of exercise.
In addition to the biochemical response, one of the singular benefits of lifting heavy is that you can focus entirely on the skill of moving weights, accumulating data and marking your progress in a way that’s not based strictly on your emotions, physical appearance, or past experiences. In plain words, it’s a task that can help a person step away from feelings of fear and inadequacy and feel powerful instead.
Lifting can also be data driven, gender neutral, infinitely modifiable (which makes it much more physically accessible and safer than running), and centered around the principle of steady, progressive overload. When you focus on slowly progressing your skill set with the barbell and achieving data-driven goals, it can help to boost your sense of accomplishment and self esteem. I have found through training myself and others that putting more weight on the bar and focusing on moving it well is a more tangible way to gauge clear progress rather than relying on a fluctuating number on the scale or how you might feel that day.
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Unfortunately, the fitness industry and media that surrounds it has always been inextricably tied with preying on people’s insecurities and negative emotions in order to take their money. This can lead to a deeper spiral of shame and negativity when you're attempting to establish a strength-training regimen. For folks who are dealing with daily anxiety and depression, the idea of going to a gym to pick up barbells might seem like a landmine of potentially triggering situations.
Here are some techniques that you can try to build your own healing ritual around the practice of lifting.
Check in with Yourself and Set an Intention
Before heading to the gym, make sure you have a plan and take a moment to set aside the stress of the day. It's important to cultivate an awareness of what emotions you're dealing with before heading in to lift. “Before you work out, take stock of how you feel. Just take one minute checking in with yourself,” says Laura Khoudari, a personal trainer and board advisor for the Women’s Strength Coalition, who trains people who’ve experienced trauma. “Do you feel anxious or depleted? Do you feel grounded? Excited? I you feel disregulated at all, take 1 to 3 minutes to practice any self-care you may use to bring yourself into a grounded and ready state.”
Find a preworkout routine that works for you, which might be similar to the ritual you use to prepare for work or any other potentially stressful performance. For me, a hot shower, a great gym outfit, and putting on makeup helps a lot. It helps me feel fierce, powerful, and prepared.
Track Your Progress in a Journal
Writing can be an incredibly helpful tool to help you define your goals, record your progress, and reflect on how far you've come. Once you’ve decided on a training program, use a journal to record sets, make notes, and check in with yourself. The simple act of journaling can also serve as a healthy coping mechanism when you're in the gym and dealing with social anxiety. “Use this time to reflect on your lifts, your progress, or anything else emotional that may have come up,” Khoudari says. I've also found it keeps me from mindlessly scrolling on my phone in between sets. The less time I spend looking at my phone, the more I usually get out of my training session.
Find Your Tribe
Connecting with other positive people who are focused on strength and self improvement transformed my social landscape for the better. The act of going to a gym to connect with like-minded people in a supportive environment allows you to practice valuable social skills. "Resistance exercise training likely facilitates social interaction—lifting with a partner, gym-based interactions, being part of a subculture geared toward health, for example—and intrapersonal reinforcement," Klemanski says.
The intrapersonal reinforcement he refers to here (e.g., feeling good about one's self, accomplishing a goal, and feeling healthy) can be an incredible byproduct of working on your gains with supportive people, likeminded people. A positive lifting community is invaluable since it allows an individual to practice constructive social skills without judgment or expectation. “The community that surrounds lifting and lifters is just happy and welcoming place,” Stephens tells me.
On the journey toward healing, there will be numerous variables, challenging people, distractions, periods of stress, and low energy. In a world where there are systems that dehumanize and make us feel hopeless on a daily basis, lifting can give us a framework in which to examine ourselves, test our limits in a structured space, and learn to how progress and embrace change. Seize the things you can control, learn to let go of everything you cannot, and have fun getting strong as hell.
Saysha Heinzman is a certified USAPL Club Coach, certified Yoga Teacher, nationally qualified 84kg USAPL powerlifter, and strength/hypertrophy specialist with over 13 years experience in the NYC fitness industry.
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