It IS all in your head
Hey. Psychological is physiological. Don't discount your brain as part of your body. In fact, your brain is THE part of your body.
It took me a long time to figure out that my mental and emotional struggles in high school and college were no different from my physical struggles with injuries in gymnastics. I thought the former were just things I had to live with, while the latter were something I could improve, something I could visibly understand was getting better.
But both brain pain and body pain are of identical origin. They're just body cells asking for help.
When I was a girl, my gymnastics coach asked me what I thought I wanted to study when I got older, and I said "Probably neuroscience." She said, "Really? Neuroscience?" and I said, "Yeah, because I think the brain is cool." One of my teammates said, "That's a weird answer."
I felt dumb. I wasn't a popular kid, and everyone laughed, and I was embarrassed.
Well, fast forward a decade and I decided to study neuroscience anyway and then I failed a lot of classes because studying wasn't fun but everything else in New Orleans was super fun!
I felt dumb again, this time for thinking I could ever be smart enough to even be in college at all. I considered dropping out. My parents convinced me to stay, and I learned a lot of French literature for the next three years. In the end, Sartre was fantastic, but I still think the brain is even better. Then again, the line "Hell is other people" is probably better than anything any neuroscientist has ever written.
Depuis, I've unofficially studied a lot of neuroscience, almost in defiance now of my previous self. I read books and comb through research. I subscribe to journals. I own several brain-centric fitness certifications. Shit, I'll sit down with a textbook and have a gander at the thalamus for a while. I'm really not that far off from the kid who gets beat up for reading dictionaries. (I do also love reading dictionaries. Dumbledore is an old English word meaning bumblebee. JK Rowling pictured Professor Dumbledore buzzing all around the castle. Come on. That's just great.)
Brain pain and body pain are of the same origin.
I love words, but I've long since accepted that I'm a science dork too, and body science is all about the brain, not the body. Your nervous system is incredibly cool. Your brain can see and process an image in 13 milliseconds (about twenty times faster than the blink of an eye). If a blind person is blind because of a brain problem, as opposed to an eye problem, they can still "see," because their eye is still working properly. It's called blindsight. Someone who is entirely blind by any metric can—often to their own amazement—catch and throw, recognize people walking into the room, or navigate obstacles in a hallway.
That pudgy three pound Jello mold in your skull is capable of retaining the entire internet. Even your dumb coworker's dumb brain can retain the entire internet in it. Might not seem that way, when she ignores all your emails but tells you how many calories are in your breakfast each morning, but it's true. Your brain is a blobby behemoth of excellence. As such, it deserves respect as a physiological organ with physiological reasons that things can go wrong.
And yet, we continue to treat any physical difficulty with a mental genesis (depression, anxiety, fear) as something less real than anything with a somatic genesis (broken leg, grumpy pancreas, crapulous intestines*). Countless times someone has struggled with me in the gym and said, "I know, it's all in my head," and I'm all, "Yeah, it's all in your head! Your head is a thing!" They just stare at me.
Hey! Your head is a thing!
But everyone is upset by their heads, even though going to new places and trying new things can be terrifying. Being scared of a new skill is entirely legitimate. Why would jumping onto a tall wooden box feel natural? You could just climb up there. What sense does it make to jump? Pretty much everything we do in American Ninja Warrior training is dumb as hell. Why spend a terrifying ten seconds getting a higher and higher swing so that you can let go and catch something absurdly uncatchable? Like, just walk across the floor, Mia. About eight feet and you're at the other side. The most brainless amoebas understand this.
Anxiety and fear are legitimate reactions to uncertain situations. But no matter how you slice it, it sucks to be scared. So you might think that in a perfect world, you could just avoid both and be all set. Why purposely make yourself scared? Seems normal to say, it doesn't have to be this way. This isn't necessary.
Except it does, and it is. Fear and anxiety, in and out of the gym, come from the threat of risk. Humans do better when we take risks. Risk-taking people climb more real and metaphorical ladders and report higher life satisfaction. Why? Presumably because they've learned how to calculate their best odds and then have acted on them. In general, when we take gambles that pay off we are more likely to take more gambles further down the line. When we take chances that fail, we do the opposite.
This all seems obvious, and that the obvious solution would be that everyone practice taking calculated risks with the highest chance for success. Over time, we would all be more incentivized to take on bigger, more lucrative prospects. Seems simple.
But most things in the body aren't simple. Sometimes our brains don't recover all the way from a loss. No matter how small it was, a loss is a loss. Stack up enough of them and this can lead to emotional disaster. I see this in the gym from both beginners and experts. It could be an injury, a wave of self-consciousness, an unwelcome comment, even seeing someone do something you wish you could do. They all contribute to the bank of unpleasant associations with fitness and one's own body. When people reach a threshold of anxiety, they flee. It ends up being easier to leave than to face something that makes you uncomfortable. I get this. Our bodies are such an essential part of our self-concept that an attack on them can be unbearable. But some people bear these attacks better than others.
The "others" are missing something called trait resilience. Both beginners and experts experience the same things when they aim to learn something new: misses, setbacks, insults, failures, losses. People with high trait resiliency (meaning it's in their nature to keep trying, even after they miss) tend to bounce back more quickly after a loss. They'll remember that it happened, but the fear of it happening again doesn't interfere with their next pursuit.
Humans do better when we take risks.
However, people with low trait resiliency are not just the opposite of high trait resiliency. Yes, they recover from hurtful events more slowly. But worse than that, after enough blows, they often don't recover at all. This fear of exposure begins to expand into other aspects of their life. It gets to the point where even the threat of a negative experience drives them away. Each time a potentially risky situation arises, less resilient people experience an influx of memories of times when things went wrong. (Highly resilient people do not suffer this life failure highlight reel.)
Your brain runs through a gauntlet of bad memories in order to discourage you from risking further harm. It's like my mom when I was skipping school or sneaking out of the house or generally being a jerk. "OK, Mia, but you remember what happened last time, don't you? I'd usually be like, "Yeah, I remember, and SEE YA NEVER BYE," as I waltzed out the door to stalk my crush at Kelly's Roast Beef. (I miss you, Keith, you were such a good roller skater.) I should have told my mom that I was practicing high trait resiliency, rather than just being a complete douchebag.
There are definitely situations where this protective pattern makes sense. If you got injured by making a mistake at softball, or if you were embarrassed by being poorly prepared for a presentation, or if you got drunk and said something awful to a friend, it's useful to remember this and improve on that performance next time.
However, we've said many times in this blog that the brain always adapts to exactly what it does, and this situation is no different. Fucking up a presentation and then deciding you shouldn't give any more presentations reinforces the notion of avoidance as success. Why? Because it feels really good in the moment. I know that relief well. As with anything, the more your brain repeats this, the more it gets used to it. And unfortunately, your brain is onto your tricks. It knows that the work presentation isn't the only scary thing in your life. Like Ursula the Sea Witch, it wonders what other fears can be seized upon and added to the moored colony of medusoid polyps, never to be seen again.
One fear after another, she'll coil around your fears and smother them. You'll learn to avoid not just presentations, but friends, co-workers, the gym, self-care, traveling, public places, and whatever else she can get her suction cups suctioned onto.
After that, it's a never-ending cascade. Ursula's evil tentacles will seek out even the most unrealistic stressors and destroy them in the worst way: by keeping you anchored at home. It seems like she's making your dreams come true, by delivering you to Anxiety-Free Holy Land of Prince Eric, but she's not telling you the whole truth. Right behind Prince Eric lies the loss of your voice, your abilities, your mertail, and your freedom. She tortures your friends, steals your identity, turns herself into a way hotter woman than you in order to steal yo' prince, casts your beloved father into a polyp and very ceremoniously seizes his trident to become the supreme ruler of the ocean in order to reign with iron-fisted tentacles and fear! All because you didn't want to give a presentation! You poor unfortunate soul!!!
Ok, we're back.
So you thought your fear of box jumps was just a simple fear of box jumps? Something simple and easily dismissed? Something that made you feel stupid for being scared? No way, José. Behind that straightforward concern about jumping onto a wooden platform lies a mountain of neurophysiology and a really evil sea witch. Give your brain its due credit. You're scared for a reason, and it's not because you're a giant pansy who just needs to get over it, no matter what some shitty coach once told you as a kid. It's because your brain doesn't know how to—or can't—properly evaluate the scary box jumping situation, or the people think I look stupid situation. Part two of this blog is going to break down the specific concept of taking athletic risks. We'll talk about why fitness is especially scary and some basic tricks to get all up in your anxiety's face.
It might be all in your head, but your head is a thing.
*Y'all. I made a pun with crapulous. Come on. Highest brow low brow joke ever.