"There's Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself"- Franklin D. Roosevelt
I recently listened to the podcast, "How to Hack Fear" on Barbell Shrugged with Tony Blauer. If you would like to check it out you can access the link by clicking the picture above (disclaimer: explicit language).
Tony talks about a few interesting things that have come up in my own personal life, as well as my work with UBFit, as a therapist and as a coach. First, he talks about the physiological response to fear, which is different from our cognitive (or thought) response. This is an especially important point to touch on for those who have a heighted stress-response mechanism due to issues such as past trauma, PTSD, and anxiety among other mental health issues. Typically we think of this as our "fight, flight or freeze" response. If you have a anxiety or PTSD, you may experience this response in situations when it is not warranted. In other words, you may be too quick to fight, flee or freeze. In fact, much of the research shows that panic attacks themselves start with a physical sensation (rapid heart rate, choking sensation, etc) that then leads the client to believe or misperceive something about their situation which then perpetuates the panic attack (i.e. "I'm dying.").
One of the main treatments for PTSD symptoms, such as panic attacks, is EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which I am trained in. Interestingly this treatment modality involves bilateral stimulation of the brain (right and left hemisphere firing through back and forth movement of the eyes) while the client is desensitized to a particularly stressful memory. Often this "Desensitization" phase creates a stress response in the client (I.e they feel fear or sadness). One of the things I love so much about EMDR is that the client is in control at this point. They must "push through" the urge to stop processing or they will only remain stuck. They have to continue to allow themselves to feel the emotion "in their body" (another important piece we will touch on later) despite it being uncomfortable. They do this until they are no longer disturbed, or minimally disturbed by the memory (desensitized).
One great thing about having clients with PTSD or anxiety in the gym is that they are allowed to practice safely pushing these comfort zones, similar to how EMDR works. They are exposed to a fear producing situation (box jumps/rope climbs/learning something new in front of others, etc.) and by "pushing through" it they desensitize themselves to that fear. We have all likely experienced this in one way or another. However, for someone with that heightened physiological response to fear, this could be extremely beneficial as they will learn that they are in control (not the fear) and that only through exposure to those feelings and the use of proper fear management skills can they overcome the typical resultant panic attack type symptoms. Often after certain UBFit groups designed to focus on this topic athletes state something like," "I felt brave" or "I did more than I thought I could."
The interview talks about some interesting things I can relate to personally as an anxious person and athlete. Superstitions. Many athletes place control outside themselves. I had lucky objects or "rituals" (placing the left sock on before the right for example when suiting up) that gave me the "illusion" of control, or made me feel more in control, in situations that made me feel as though I was losing control of my ability to stay calm. Some superstitions are harmless, however I can remember being extremely stressed about making sure everything went in a particular order before games and if they didn't... my stress was worse. Again, I said "illusion" of control. This can also be extended further, beyond sporting superstitions, to the very real and serious ways people convince themselves they are in control; such as through the use of mind-altering substances and disordered eating (these often co-occur with anxiety disorders and PTSD). While superstitions and rituals seem almost funny and trivial, there is actually not that far of a leap to these other, more serious issues.
Again, by learning to face fear, get comfortable with it and move through it, not around it, we decrease the need for these types of maladaptive fear management skills. This is what I hope athletes involved in any fitness program learn. This is what I learned. I sometimes wonder what types of awful paths my anxiety may have taken me down had I not had fitness, and team sports in my life. My hope is by exposing some of our athletes to these situations and helping them to learn to manage fear in healthy ways (in addition to their regularly scheduled therapy sessions if they suffer with a mental health issue) we may help prevent them from using maladaptive coping skills in the future to manage these symptoms.
I often ask before a max height box jump what the athlete is feeling and where they are feeling it. They will almost always say "scared", or "butterflies" "in my chest." This is very important for them to observe as they will no-doubt experience this again before doing anything of any importance or value in their lives. I want them to learn that is not something to avoid. Constantly learning to work with this feeling is very important for anxious people and athletes. We have to accept and work with our fears, before we can transform them.