How would an anxiety therapist approach personal training?

Woman talking with a personal trainer

Helping someone to tackle their anxiety requires a specialist skill set. In this article, we’ll examine what that approach is by looking at how an anxiety therapist would approach being a personal trainer in the gym.

What does a personal trainer do?

A personal trainer has two roles. Firstly they are an educator. They teach their clients about physiology, nutrition, recovery, the mechanics of actually using machines and lifting weights and how to stay safe whilst doing all of that.

Second, they are a motivational coach. They are there to encourage clients as they make changes to their routine and diet. They help with setting goals and monitoring performance around those goals. There’s an assumption with personal training that clients need to be motivated, either when they come through the door or after a pep talk from their coach because the work they’re going to do is hard.

I’ve had three personal trainers in my life, and I liked them all. They were enthusiastic, knowledgeable and motivated. The information they shared with me about physiology, nutrition, heart rate, sleep and training schedules was incredibly helpful. As I’ve got older, I find the strict discipline they instilled in me about form (making sure everything is where it should be when lifting) has saved me from many injuries.

An anxiety therapist has a lot in common with a personal trainer. We have a role in educating our clients about their condition. We help them to understand what’s happening to them and also what changes they can make to improve their symptoms.

Motivation plays a big part in what we do, too. But we come with the expectation that our clients are likely to start out very demotivated. They’re very rarely ready to do hard work and confront unpleasant feelings when they first walk through the door. Maybe for decades they’ve seen themselves try and fail at things they’ve set their mind to. Work and friendships may be littered with the ghosts of mistakes, embarrassments and past failures. So, we are used to meeting people who outwardly appear to have very little motivation and inwardly probably feel as though they have next to none.

A lot of the work we do with clients to address their anxiety is outside of the scope of a short article such as this. Each client receives a personalised treatment plan. But there are some comparisons we can make with personal training to highlight the way we work.

Meeting the client where they are

The first thing I would do with a client is show them I understand their point of view. If I’m super pumped about how great the gym is, and they’re terrified, I have to shut out my informed optimism and focus on what it’s like for somebody that hasn’t had my great experiences in the gym. I have to listen and make sure I see the world from their point of view. Their motivation is built through their experience, not mine.

So, if I were to meet a personal training client for the first time, I’d find out what kind of person they are. Are they usually someone who’s super motivated or are they someone who tends to procrastinate? When they wake up in the morning do they jump out of bed or do they pull the covers over their head? What do they expect to happen with personal training? Do they usually follow through on things they start or, at the back of their mind are they worried that this will probably go by the wayside after a few sessions? Based on what we’d discussed I’d be sure to let them know that I understood where we’re starting from.

Maybe they’ve never even been to a gym before and find all of the machines overwhelming. I would let them know that that is a perfectly valid place to start from.

Finally, I would demolish the myth that other people enjoy going to the gym. People enjoy being someone who goes to the gym. But very few people enjoy being there. They enjoy being fit, feeling more confident and having more energy. But the gym is a place makes you feel uncomfortable and is mostly unpleasant while you are there. So, I’d let them know that it’s okay to talk about feeling bad. I’d make sure they knew they didn’t have to pretend to be enthusiastic for my benefit. It’s better to be honest about where we’re starting from.

Work at their level of discomfort

The next thing I would do is make them a promise. I would promise them that we were going to work at their pace and a level of discomfort that they find tolerable.

There’s a direct relationship between the discomfort someone is prepared to endure and the speed at which they will achieve their fitness goals. More pain = quicker gain. But there’s also a direct relationship between the tolerability of the discomfort they experience in the gym and their likelihood of quitting. Too much pain = they exit.

I would encourage them to foster the approach that long-term regular exposure to the moderate discomfort of training, coupled with very slow improvement, is a great outcome for anybody. They can be fit and be proud of the fact that they are someone who sticks at things if we work carefully to not over-stress them and push them out of the door.

So, I would encourage some experimentation. I’d encourage us to take on the role of a pair of scientists investigating the relationship between exercise and their mind. I’d encourage us to adopt a zero-to-ten scale for rating feelings of tiredness/resistance and for us to get used to talking about those throughout our work together.

I’d promise them that we would not work at a level above the discomfort level they were prepared to tolerate during our work together. And I’d ask the client to promise me that if we were to stray outside of the tolerable zone that they would tell me and give us the opportunity to reduce that discomfort and keep going rather than quitting.

What would the client experience?

From day one I would hope that the client experience some relief in knowing that they’re not working with an out-of-touch gym addict who thinks pain is great. I’d hope they’d be relieved to find they could be honest about the times they feel conflicted about whether they even want to do this and let me know honestly where their motivation is at.

I would hope they would feel reassured after our first session that they can trust me not to push them or hurry them. And over time, as their training sessions loom, they’d start to realise that they don’t dread coming because they know there’ll be no surprises and we’ll work to increase their fitness gently.

A few months down the line they would experience some surprise that they’ve stuck at this and be proud of themselves. And even though it doesn’t feel like they’ve had much pain, when I show them the chart of what we started off doing in week one, and we look at how much we’ve moved forward they’d be delighted. It may not be a dramatic improvement, but it is an improvement.

Slowly, the feeling starts to come over them that fitness isn’t something reserved for other people. And the reason why they haven’t done this previously may be that they’ve been too hard and too demanding on themselves which has led them to quit. In the end, they’d feel that patience, kindness and encouragement to gradually improve pays big dividends and allows them to persevere with things they felt were not available to them.

Hopefully, they’d realise that a feeling of low motivation is a great place to start making changes from, as long as you tolerate moving slowly. Maybe they’d start to apply that philosophy to other areas of their lives too and grow some new, enjoyable habits outside of the gym.