I was recently asked how I got over anxiety and while I cannot remember the exact moment, I remember the process it took. I think it's best to break the primary focuses of gym anxiety down into two buckets and address each. There's the "I don't know what I'm doing" anxiety and then there's the "are people looking at me?" anxiety.
I Don't Know What I'm Doing
We all start with no idea what we we're doing in the gym. What helped me in the beginning was having a simple workout routine written down or at least in mind. Yes, to get over the "I don't know what I'm doing" anxiety ....decide exactly what you're going to do before you arrive at the gym.
Get familiar with your gym's assortment of equipment. When you're taking a tour of a gym, pay close attention to all of the equipment it has, and ask the gym rep questions. "What does this do?" "What muscle group does this target?" Walk over to machines and read the information. This is your time to get a really good idea of what the gym has to offer....BEFORE you sign a contract. Do not let them rush you. If they want your membership, they can chill while you look around.
If you've already signed up, and don't have a good grasp of what equipment your gym offers. Plan to go to your gym in plain clothes as if you're going through your initial tour, and take a look at the equipment. Or, look at their website for pictures of inside the gym. Many gyms will list the equipment they have to entice new members.
Now that you know what equipment is available to you, develop your workout routine. Group the machines by what muscle group they target. For example, does your gym have a hamstring curl machine, and a leg press machine? This is a great start for an awesome leg day. Think "okay, I'm going to go and do 3 sets of 12 reps on both the hamstring curl machine and leg press machine."
If you're worried about using the machines incorrectly, reference their instructional illustrations that demonstrate their use. They can usually be found at the top of the machine. Or, if you're a visual learner, you can look up YouTube videos beforehand of machines you're interested in trying.
Once you have your plan developed, that's it....you know what you're doing.
Are People Looking at Me? Pt. 1
The answer is "yes, sometimes", but are they consciously looking at you? Majority of the time the answer is "no." People are complex. People have stuff going on. It's not about you, and it's not about me. I think this is a good way in general to assess the perceived actions of others.
There was once an occasion back in college where a girl asked me why I was staring at her. I didn't even know what she was talking about, still, I analyzed my body language. Yep, my body was definitely positioned to look in her direction. So perhaps I was looking her direction, but I was 100% lost in my own thoughts. I wasn't thinking about her at all.
That is an instance where I wasn't present in the moment. It's certainly a bad habit, but I don't think I'm alone in it. I am sure that there have been times where I've unintentionally offended people in some way, simply because I wasn't entirely present in my actions. In knowing this, I've come to not be offended by other people's actions either, because people are complex just like me.
Other people have stuff going on in their lives too. If the person in front of me forgets to hold the door, I can get angry and call them a jerk. Or, I can choose to assume it wasn't intentional and that perhaps they're mentally running through a to-do list, or are racing to the restroom. Maybe they have a sick kid at home that they're stressed over. It could be anything. Regardless, I cannot assume that other people's actions are always about me. Nor is it healthy to expend mental energy getting upset over the minute actions of strangers.
The same holds true for the gym. I can choose to go to the gym and feel self conscious every time someone looks my direction. Or, I can choose to believe that no one is thinking about me. Why? Because they probably aren't. When I'm at the gym I'm thinking about my form, my next exercise, how long I've been resting, the music I'm listening to, and food. The next woman may be thinking of everything on my list plus her significant other or a heated discussion she had with a coworker. If we just so happen to look in each others direction, then that's all it is.
Are People Looking at Me? Pt. 2
The answer is "yes, sometimes" but try not to immediately assume it's negative or judgmental. I've certainly had my own creepy experiences in the gym, as a woman unfortunately it does happen. We'll get more into how to handle that in a bit. For now we're going to address non-predatory staring. Occasionally I will see someone in the gym doing an exercise I haven't seen before. I will watch them complete the exercise, then make a mental note to try it out myself. That is how nearly EVERYONE discovers new workouts. So don't be so quick to think an onlooker is judging or making fun of you. More times than not they're just inspired.
Then there are times when the gym creeper has zeroed in on you. Understand that creeping women out is his M.O. He gets shot down all the time, but for the gym creeper it's a numbers game. For every twenty women that tell him to get lost, one gives him her number. However, he's shameless, so those twenty rejections don't matter to him. He gets off on any interaction with a woman be it negative or positive. So the best way to engage a gym creeper is to NOT engage him. I repeat, the gym creeper gets off on any engagement, and any acknowledgment. Pretend he's invisible, but stay vigilant of his position to you and don't hesitate to report any harassment.
A pre-planned workout routine, focus, and the mentality that onlookers likely aren't judging you are characteristics of a seasoned gym-goer. If you nail all three you're going to go from feeling like a newbie to a boss pretty quickly. Above all remember that everyone was a beginner at one point, but the difference between you and them is persistence.