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By Jemima Atar


Growing up, coping with stress and traumatic events saw me exercise in unhealthy, obsessive ways. I would engage in high-intensity workouts for up to three hours every day, and, paradoxically, though it served as a coping mechanism for pre-existing stressors that I could not face at the time, it also enhanced my stress levels: missing out on even a fraction of my daily three-hour workout would cause me to spiral into anxiety.

After years of therapy, understanding both my traumas and my coping mechanisms, and becoming a therapist myself, I have had a very different relationship with exercise for the last few years. I still enjoy my daily workouts, but they are nowhere near as lengthy, and skipping out on a few minutes, let alone a few days of exercise, does not cause me extreme anxiety.

That being said, until very recently, I still held some unhelpful beliefs about exercise. I thought workouts had to be intense and adrenaline-filled. Going on a walk felt like a ‘cop out’. I had imposed an exercise hierarchy on myself whereby any type of movement that did not leave me breathless and sweaty, with my heart pounding right out of my chest, did not ‘count’. It seems that my habit of coping with stress by inducing a different type of stress was still active, though to a lesser extent. This was coupled by a general restlessness and avoidance of practices I’d freely recommend to my clients in therapy, such as breathwork and meditation. The end result? My exercise routine was far removed from mindfulness and relaxation.

If this attitude to working out resonates with you, I’d encourage you to spend some time reframing exercise, especially if you also struggle with some of the anxiety symptoms described on the Anxiety UK website. For me, I have finally learned to listen to my body when it comes to movement, rather than forcing it to conform to my rigid expectations. Sometimes, a high-intensity workout gives me a perfect burst of energy: there is certainly a time and a place for heavy workouts. But sometimes, especially when I am stressed, I prefer nature walks and easy swimming. Listening to what kind of movement you need on any given day is an important part of respecting yourself; doing the work to stop shaming your body for wanting a restful walk or a meditative swim allows you to get closer to your true self.

Importantly, engaging in exercise that, though still providing many or even more of the health benefits afforded by high-intensity workouts, is more attuned to your needs, means that you may actually be engaging in both exercise and mindfulness at the same time.


‘Jemima Atar is a London-based psychotherapist, author and writer, who writes about mental health and healing.’

The views expressed by the contributor are not necessarily those of Anxiety UK, nor can we guarantee the accuracy of the information provided. If you would like to write a blog for AUK please email [email protected] for more information.


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