Exercise your Fear

Posted: August 10, 2010 in Confessions of the CEO, Fitness

In my twenties, I learned something that changed the way I saw the world and ultimately resulted in my pursuit of fitness and boxing as my vocation.   I had been talking to a therapist who explained to me that some of the trauma I was feeling at the time was being experienced on a purely physical level and if I could move the trauma through my body, I might just feel better.

She explained:

Imagine a rabbit being chased by a fox.  As soon as the rabbit recognizes the danger, it’s adrenal system kicks in and it flies into action.  One of two conclusions follow – the fox has the rabbit for lunch or the rabbit gets away.  If the rabbit gets away, it’ll find a safe place to hide, shake out the excess adrenalin and other stress hormones and then it’ll go on with its day leaving the effects of the trauma behind.

We, human animals, are also hardwired for fight and flight (and freeze).  It’s part of our reptilian brain and amygdala and our propensity for responding appropriately to fear has allowed us to evolve and rise to the top of the food chain.  The down side is that we’re still responding to threat even though (for most of us) there aren’t any that require such a violent response.  So we feel the fear that we are hardwired to feel and then we look for reasons (I’m not good enough, he let me down, I’m broke) to justify our panic. On top of it, our bodies hold on to the stress hormones and we have slew of anxiety and auto-immune disorders as a result.

So we are left with chronic anxiety and worry that we will never have enough or be enough.  We’ll never have enough money.  We’ll never have enough love.  We’ll never have enough safety.  And so long as we live by what our primitive brain tells us, we won’t.  That part of our brain is great – it’s got our back, but it hasn’t evolved in relation to the kind of lives most North Americans are living.

Besides building an awareness through our neocortex (all hail evolution!) and cultivating an acceptance that we are all naturally going to fear scarcity, many studies have shown that we can also resist chronic stress through exercise.   The “feel-good” hormones released during exercise may counteract the stress hormones that are being released as a natural part of daily living.

I’ll put it this way – imagine you are the rabbit and the fox is your visa bill, a troubling relationship, or your job.  Now imagine that the place you shake out the trauma of daily life is your bike, the heavy bag or the lake.

A road to happiness?   Exercise your fear.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Doug Brown says:

    This is a very wise post. Nice one. I read once that fear is faster than aggression; that, all things being equal, the person being chased will outrun the pursuer. It’s healthy to think of a boxing gym as a place to work out your fear, rather than your aggression.

  2. hitgirl says:

    Fear faster than aggression – that’s an interesting thought. Hmm. I was attracted to boxing for the very reason you stated. I was lucky enough to have a coach who saw boxing as a tool to cultivate conscious responses to fear. Thanks Doug.

  3. Doug Brown says:

    My first coach simply punched me in the stomach and said I needed to work on my defense. 😉

  4. Anne-Marie says:

    Great post Sandy, I completely agree! If I ride my bike daily to and from work – about 30 km total – then I seem to feel so much happier, more stress-free. Sometimes it makes me feel so good that after the ride at the end of the day I’m actually energized (even after 10 minutes of pure uphill battle!) and I’ll get home and punch the bag for a while.
    Now if only I could overcome the fear of those drivers who ignore stop signs…

  5. hitgirl says:

    Anne-Marie – thanks for your comment – I love it when you agree with me! As for your fear of the drivers – that’s fear put to good use!

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