I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of fitness & exercise in overcoming fear. I’m tackling several personal and professional fears this year, and I’m not ashamed to say that exercise, sports and fitness are not only how I cope, but how I build and sustain the courage to push past my doubts.
It’s taken me a long time to accept and admit that I’m naturally anxious. A worrywart with an overactive imagination, I can easily imagine doom and gloom in any situation, usually exacerbated by the “what if” game … as in:
“What if I quit my job to explore a new career path and end up poor and completely unemployable?”
“What if I say something dumb at that important meeting, and lose all credibility?”
“What if I haven’t heard from my husband/family member is because s/he’s lying in a ditch somewhere?”
If something bad can happen, you can bet that I’ll imagine it. All of these what if’s are at best exhausting, and at worst, totally soul-crushing. But still, it’s difficult to simply turn them off — it’s part of who I am. Instead, I have to find a way to cope in a way that will draw out my best self.
For me, part of the answer is in something I already love: fitness and physical activity. And even more specifically, in paying attention to how the physical feelings can influence how I think and how I view myself and the world.
Running/Cycling = validation of my endurance/stamina
That feeling when all of a sudden one day, 6 miles feels like 2 miles used to. Running teaches me that I’m capable of building endurance on top of endurance. Just when I think I’ve maxed out, I can find something more inside of me to go a little faster and a bit longer.
Tennis = validation of my mental and strategic agility
That feeling when you’re down 2-5, yet you somehow mange to dig deep and gather the intense focus to come back to win the set. Tennis teaches me that if I can manage my focus and self-talk, and flex my problem-solving muscle, I can accomplish more than I thought possible.
Skiing = validation that I’m capable of pushing past natural fear and can trust in my abilities (and in the abilities of others)
That feeling when you face the fear of skiing a particularly harrowing line, no matter whether you get out of it cleanly or take a tumble. Skiing teaches me to trust my abilities and understand my limits, with the wisdom to know the difference.
Yoga = validation that I can endure uncomfortable situations gracefully and non-reactively
That feeling when your muscles are shaking and burning mercilessly, yet you find the wherewithal to sit with it calmly, without panicking, knowing that the feeling will soon pass. Yoga teaches me that everything, including discomfort, is temporary, and that with a bit of mindfulness, I can endure a lot more than I think.
Strength training = a reminder that over time, I can build habits like I can build muscles
That feeling when one day you look in the mirror and all of a sudden you see new strength in the form of a defined bicep or ever-so-slightly cut ab. Strength training teaches me that repetition and dedication will always yield results, and that the most important thing is to keep going, day after day, because it’s only over time that you’ll see and feel the results.
I know that I’m not alone in the battle with fear and anxiety. Some people struggle less and some struggle much, much more. Exercise and fitness isn’t a cure-all, but I do believe that there’s a strong connection between body and mind, and if you pay attention, you can learn a great deal about yourself and what you’re truly capable of. In the gym, on the court, and most importantly, in life.
Also published on Medium.