There’s a lot of things you can feel after a workout. Post-workout endorphins (they’re definitely real), and yes, the effect exercise can have on your mental health is undoubtedly positive, it’s not the case for all people — especially when it comes to intense exercise. For some, it’s a high, while for others, it’s feelings of overwhelming anxiety — enough to bring them to tears.
According to the ABC, when you exercise, you experience a number of chemical reactions in the brain including the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, as well as serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline. While the latter are lauded for their mood-boosting qualities, it’s not the same experience for everyone.
And, this it’s most likely because of the fight-flight response, which can be triggered during intense exercise as it causes your heart to pump faster, says Michaela Pascoe, a researcher in mental health, mindfulness and physical activity at Victoria University.
“These sorts of physical experiences that people can have during intense exercise can be closely aligned with the symptoms of anxiety,” Dr Pascoe told the ABC. “So if somebody does experience anxiety, it’s even more important to consider what sort of physical activity might be appropriate for them.”
In fact, certain research suggests that when you exercise at a moderate level, you are able to focus your attention on positive thoughts and push away from negative ones but, when the intensity of the exercise is increased, this isn’t possible. This is probably because exercise has the ability to “heighten existing emotions,” says the ABC.
This can be triggered by the fact that exercise allows you to take closer notice on your body and this “body awareness” can evoke subconscious emotional experiences that you might not have been aware of.
“This is often found when people start practising mindfulness activities, like meditating, which bring that sense of presence and body awareness, and those emotions may initially come up,” said Dr Pascoe. “In the immediate or the short term, it may even be a little bit distressing, but in the long term, it can have beneficial effects.”
If you’re experiencing post-exercise anxiety every now and then, and you feel like it passes fairly quickly, there’s probably nothing much to worry about there. But, if this is a regular occurrence after completing high-intensity exercise, and is something that takes a while to pass, it might be time to switch up your workout routine and find something you enjoy doing.
“If it is something that people enjoy doing, they’re more likely to have a positive mood post-exercise, even if it is close to, or beyond, that threshold,” Rhiannon Patten, an exercise physiologist undertaking a PhD at Victoria University, told the ABC. “Choosing an activity that you enjoy doing is a huge, huge part of the affective response to exercise.”
While high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is particularly popular at the moment, it’s not for everyone. If your body and mind is not responding positively to this type of exercise, there’s no shame in finding a more moderate way to move your body, like walking, swimming or Pilates.
“If it feels good, that intrinsic motivator is a much stronger driving force and a bigger predictor of ongoing engagement than anything else,” Dr Pascoe said. “So trying different things is really important, because nobody wants to do something that makes them feel terrible.”