How Ellie Goulding uses exercise to kick anxiety to the curb

The multi-platinum singer is candid about her panic attacks and how she uses cardio workouts to combat them.
(Source: Instagram/@elliegoulding)

An Indie pop darling for much of the past decade, Ellie Goulding sells records. Platinum ones. Three times over, in fact. You've definitely heard her string of toe-tappers on the radio, but notoriety doesn't mean life in a rose-hued utopia. Recently, she's been candid about the crippling panic attacks that came with fame. And the way she's taken back control.

The control was hard-won but she did it, in part, by kicking ass. Kickboxing and boxing are pillars of her workout regimen (she admits to being a bit of a fitness junkie). The boost she gets from the kickboxing isn't only because beating the tar out of a heavy bag is empowering (though it is). There's a beneficial chemistry to cardio. Any serious workout, like sparring, will get your endorphins flowing and boost serotonin levels, giving your mood a positive jump start. And kickboxing is highly cardiovascular.

Post workout bliss is calming too. You'll have the psychological leg up of feeling good for having done something positive for yourself and your body will enter a more relaxed state because you've burned off excess adrenaline that comes with worry and anxiety. Guy Faulkner, a researcher at the University of Toronto's Mental Health and Physical Activity Research Centre, spells it out for us: "Sweat is the best antidepressant."  Or as Goulding puts it, exercise is "good for the soul." Exercise, apart from being great for your physique, does wonders for your mental state. It's one of the best ways to leverage depression and anxiety. 


As with most people who suffer from an emotional disorder, Ellie Goulding did it in silence for years. Her fame was welcome and thrilling but performance anxiety and the pressures of a public life became overwhelming. "I started having panic attacks, and the scariest part was it could be triggered by anything. I used to cover my face with a pillow whenever I had to walk outside from the car to the studio." Hiding or avoidance can actually make anxiety worse as it reinforces false patterns of safety. It's what keeps some anxiety sufferers, like agoraphobics, from leaving the house to avoid panic. It's the illusion that you're safer inside. Talking to others about anxiety, like a trusted friend or therapist, can be freeing and provide relief but the way sufferers talk to themselves is crucial. Goulding credits healthy self-talk with her slow recovery. When her anxiety took hold last year at the Grammys, she had to have a tough talk with herself before taking the stage to perform. "If other people believed in me, I had to start believing in myself."

Anxiety and depression are often treated with cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) which aims to reframe negative thinking patterns that can cause stress, worry, and defeating thoughts. The way we talk to ourselves internally often sabotages our moods. "I think part of what sparked my panic attacks was not feeling confident enough to believe in myself – I was scared I wasn't as good of a singer as everyone thought I was." Negative self-talk is toxic and often blatantly untrue. Like questioning your musical talent with you're a multi-platinum recording artist. Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and practicing psychiatrist, says anxiety sufferers, "can't distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit." Along with self-talk to reframe those thoughts, she says meditation can help. Learning to quiet the mind through breath and silent focus makes it easier to be truthful and positive. Calm, positive self-talk is an important step to establishing balance and getting control back like Goulding did. "I still feel nervous before performing, or have pangs of anxiety from time to time, but it's not crippling like it used to be."

Mental health is steadily getting more air time but there's still a sense of shame that silences sufferers needlessly. With 1 in 5 Canadians affected by mental illness in any given year, it's time to destigmatize the conversation. Vasiliki Marapas, a young Torontonian who co-founded the sad collective, a pro-mental health account on Instagram asks, "Why shouldn't it be okay to say, 'I'm not okay'?". It's a question worth asking as mental illnesses remain largely invisible, and at times deadly, especially in teens and young adults.

A popstar successfully pulling her life out of the jaws of a panic disorder might easily get swept aside as much ado about nothing, but only by people who've never had a panic attack. Although mental illness and poverty are inextricably linked (though many studies have linked it to wealth as well), it's important to recognize when celebrities and influencers get real about emotional disorders. Mental illness, like all illness, doesn't care if you have the corner office, perfect family or are red carpet worthy. It remains mercilessly impartial.

Stories of strife and empowerment, from everyone struggling with mental health, should be shared and championed. It's easier to kick something's ass when it's out in the open.