Latter-day Saint Life

Dr. David T. Morgan: What spin class taught me about coping with anxiety


Many years ago, my wife suggested we take an indoor cycling or “spin” class together at our gym. As a recreational cyclist, I was intrigued. After my first class, I was exhausted.

I found I had a compelling need to follow the instructor with diligence, regardless of my fatigue, which resulted in an extremely intense workout. Despite my soreness the next day, I was hooked. I started attending multiple times per week and saw results. I completed a training course and became certified to teach indoor cycling, teaching a couple classes a week for a few years. I used to joke with my students that not only were they getting a good workout in my class, but because I was a licensed psychologist (my day job), they were getting solid mental health counsel as we huffed and puffed together.

Many years have passed since I was that physically active. A few days ago, I did a guided cycling routine in my garage and was reminded of some of the principles I used to teach from that lead bike. Although they can help with any mental health struggle, I’ve found them to be particularly applicable for dealing with anxiety.

Growth Requires Effort

Most indoor cycling bikes have a resistance knob. If you turn it to the right, the bike becomes harder to pedal. If you turn it to the left, the pedaling is easier.

When teaching classes, I would routinely invite my students to add resistance to their ride by turning the knob to the right. If they followed my invitation, their exercise would become more intense. Many would struggle to keep up with the workout routine. I was having the same experience on the lead bike, finding it difficult to keep up with my own recommendations. I could have made the routines easier. I could have planned easygoing workouts that required little effort. But I knew better. My students came because they wanted to improve. They wanted to get in better shape and lose weight. Leisurely rides, although enjoyable, would not get them to their goals. So, I’d create a workout where they’d struggle, invite them to work hard, endure their periodic glares of anger, and congratulate them on a job well done when the hour was over.

I know I had many students who tired of the repeated invitations to do something painful, but they all understood the purpose behind my request. They knew they wouldn’t improve if they didn’t move past their comfort zone and engage in difficult acts. We seem to readily appreciate this concept with physical health but struggle to understand the same principles when applied to our mental health. Anxiety management can be particularly vexing. In most cases, anxiety causes us to avoid situations that increase our anxiety. But one of the best ways to decrease anxiety is to engage in those same situations, a little at a time, to learn to deal with them. That engagement will be distressing. It will require active effort on our part. Just like my cycling students, there will be times when you’ll want to end your workout prematurely because you are so tired and depleted. But those times are when the best growth happens. Effective anxiety management involves struggle. It involves risk. It involves effort on a regular basis. The good news is you are capable of doing these things, a little at a time. Small changes, regularly applied, can result in significant gains in the long run.

Your “Best” Is Variable

When I was teaching indoor cycling, I was in very good physical shape. I remember one class where a veteran student left in the middle of the routine. I found her afterwards and asked why she left. She said, “The workout wasn’t hard enough for me.” I invited her to return to class next week. In the meantime, I created the most intense workout routine I had ever done, and we rode it that next class. That same student came to me afterwards and said, “That’s more like it.”

I attempted that same workout routine the other day in my garage.Being less fit now than I was before, the workout was extremely difficult, to the point where I could barely complete it. I was discouraged. The next day I did an easier, guided workout. The virtual instructor told me, “Do your best. But remember, your best is different every day. Just give me what you’ve got today and worry about tomorrow later.” It was a genuine moment of clarity and understanding for me.

Just like physical energy, our reserves of emotional energy will vary from day to day. Some days we can manage most trials that come our way. Other days, we can barely hold our ground. And some days are just terrible, where we feel we are moving backward. To help us navigate our changing emotional energy, we need to understand two principles. First, your “best” is not an objective measure. It varies with your circumstances. At times, doing your best will result in ten steps forward. Other times, doing your best will result in simply holding your ground or even sliding backwards a bit. It is a fluctuating principle that cannot be quantified except by your own internal experience. Second, giving your best is always acceptable. Just because Friday’s version of your best was much less than Tuesday’s version does not mean you are slacking. Just give what you have. As that amount changes, give what you’ve got. When teaching indoor cycling, I’d always encourage my students to “empty their gas tanks” during every workout, leaving it all on the table through diligent effort. Some days we have ten gallons in the tank; some days we have two. Don’t worry about the amount. Just do your best, whatever that happens to be at the moment, as often as you can.

Comparison To Others Is Irrelevant

Most of my indoor cycling classes would have between twenty to twenty-five students in attendance. All sorts of people would show up. There were the regulars who came with diligence. There were first timers who weren’t sure if this was the thing for them. We all rode together. From the lead bike, I had a vantage point where I could see each student and assess their experience. Sometimes I would see them cast furtive glances at each other, with worried looks in their eyes that perhaps they weren’t performing as well as their peers. I would imagine that they might be saying to themselves, “I’m not doing as well as that woman” or “People probably think I’m not good enough for this class.” Despite my reassurance and praise, there were always students that would attend only once. Perhaps their discouragement got the best of them, and they chose not to return. If that were the case, they were missing a very important lesson.

Comparing your progress to others is meaningless. There are innumerable variables that determine our capacities and our ability to move forward, creating unique circumstances with each individual. I’ve treated and evaluated more than ten thousand clients over the course of my psychology career. Although I’ve found a high concentration of anxiety sufferers, I have yet to find two cases that were identical. Please don’t compare your efforts to those of others. Don't get discouraged when it seems that some appear to glide through life without struggle. What you may fail to understand is 1) their circumstances are quite different than yours and 2) they are probably not “gliding along” as well as you think they are. Avoid adding the additional anxiety of cross-comparison to the existing anxiety you carry. Elder J. Devn Cornish taught, “My beloved brothers and sisters, we must stop comparing ourselves to others. We torture ourselves needlessly by competing and comparing. We falsely judge our self-worth by the things we do or don’t have and by the opinions of others. If we must compare, let us compare how we were in the past to how we are today—and even to how we want to be in the future. The only opinion of us that matters is what our Heavenly Father thinks of us.”

Don’t fear diligent effort or difficult things; we will only progress as much as we are willing to work. Remember that your best will vary every day. Just bring what you can and strive to make it count. And please stop worrying about your progress compared to others. Your individual journey is unique and you are not competing against anyone but yourself. Keep moving forward.

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