One of my greatest fears in life was to live a life of mediocrity, of never pushing myself mentally or physically because I was afraid of failing, or of other peoples reactions or simply because I was scared. When I was in my 20’s and 30’s I thrived on ticking off my ‘bucket list’. This ranged from living in 4 different continents, bungee jumping, caving in Christ Church, abseiling, sky diving, being a contestant on a reality tv show and even representing Australia for sport. As I got older and started a family the less of these ‘bucket list’ items became a priority. My mindset became more about ‘what if this happened?’ or ‘what if I hurt myself?’ I started feeding into this mentality of being afraid which was the very thing that was keeping my fear’s alive. I developed a chronic case of claustrophobia after a scuba diving accident that meant getting on planes was uncomfortable, taking a lift made me uneasy and getting stuck in the Sydney Harbour tunnel was the stuff of nightmares.
As a result, I started living a life that was ‘safe’, avoiding feelings of vulnerability and anxiety because it made me feel uncomfortable, opting for the path well worn and travelled, opting for what felt safe 100% of the time. Slowly, I found myself surrendering to every fear and phobia that had developed over time choosing to give these energy rather than face the monumental task of tackling them head on. As we know, the nature of these kind of things is, what we feed grows, and my fear and phobias had taken on a life of their own.
In order to harness these fears and phobias and to experience that feeling of being alive and purposeful I knew I had to set myself a pretty lofty goal. Something that made me nervous, something that made me fearful. I had the opportunity to enter into a 12 week boxing training program at my local gym whereby at the end of the training you would have a 3 x 2 minute boxing match with an opponent. I had listened to enough podcasts and read enough self help books to understand that the only way thru your fear is with massive action….so this boxing match was it. I couldn’t think of a bigger statement than getting up in front of 500 of my clients and peers and potentially being hurt or worse still knocked out.
Much to my surprise I really enjoyed the training, there was something about learning a new skill that kept me interested and focused. I found myself losing body fat and getting fitter and stronger, so far it seemed to be a win-win situation. As the fight started to get closer my nerves started to increase. Just thinking about the fight brought on a dump of adrenaline that flooded my body from head to toe. The primary purpose of adrenaline is to prime the body to ‘get ready’ for action. The fight or flight response which gives you energy to get the job done became a familiar adversary from 4 weeks out from the fight. Around this time as well I started not sleeping, I would go to bed thinking about how each round was going to play out, what my plan of attack would be, how it would feel. As soon as I woke up in the morning I was thinking about the fight again….was this normal? I felt like I was starting to lose my mind, I mean I knew it was all part of the process to feel nervous but my fear was starting to rule my life. Here I was trying to be a mum to 2 kids and run a personal training business but all I could think about was this boxing match. I found it hard to concentrate on even the smallest tasks and things that required too much brain capacity were put on hold till after the fight.
Fast forward to a week before the fight and I was a frazzled mess, my anxiety was thru the roof and I was constantly on the edge of tears. When the organisers declared I would be the first fight of the night this sent me into a complete tail spin. All of my fears and catastrophic thinking of what could go wrong reared it’s ugly head…’your arms won’t work’, ‘you will have a panic attack’, ‘your legs wont work’ ‘you will forget everything you have been taught’. My irrational thinking had taken on a mind of it’s own and it felt like there was nothing I could do to control it or stop it.
Little did I know that ‘catastrophic thinking’ is just another form of anxiety whereby we focus on the worst possible outcomes which provide a distorted and negative picture of how the world works (No Worries, Sarah Edelman PHD 2019).
I didn’t know it at the time but the vast majority of negative events that we anticipate don’t happen, and even when they do, we manage to get through them. But for me there was no reasoning with my thoughts and the more I tried to control them the more I perpetuated them. With less than a week before the fight I made the decision to pull out, my anxiety had gotten the better of me, my anxiety had won.
In retrospect, had I understood the nature of anxiety and what it feels like to be anxious I would of realised that what I was feeling was normal. Yes I suffer from catastrophic anxiety but rather than try and control my irrational thoughts it is more about recognising them for what they are and changing my relationship with them. Some strategies that can help with this process according to Sarah Edelmen (2019) include reality testing, asking ourselves what is ‘worst, best and most likely’ by using a thought monitoring form. This involves recording the situation or trigger that gives rise to our anxiety (or other unwanted emotions), identifying the thoughts and beliefs that underpin our emotional response, and determining a more reasonable perspective. By writing down our unreasonable thoughts and reflecting on the worst, best and most likely outcomes of our situation we can identify a more reasonable and balanced perspective for our thoughts.
Facing our Fears:
‘There is no living thing that is not afraid when it faces danger. The true courage is in facing danger when you are afraid’. (L Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz).
From that moment that I pulled out of my fight I had let anxiety rob me of potentially one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I had done the work, I was physically prepared but unfortunately not mentally prepared. This was a pivotal turning point in my life because I knew I had to start training my mind as hard, if not harder than what I was training my body. I knew the best way to overcome my fears was to deliberately confront them. This involved relinquishing all of the safety behaviour’s I used such as avoiding situations and over analysing things in order to keep me safe. The only way I could release anxiety was by accepting that I cannot control every aspect of my life. I had to learn to tolerate uncertainty, take risks and embrace challenges. I had to relinquish the perpetual search for safety, the scanning for threats, overthinking and all of the other safety behaviour’s I came to habitually use. Instead I needed to turn my attention to taking on new challenges, learning to let go, breathe, trust and see what happens.
You don’t need to walk around with your umbrella open when it’s not raining.
It was finally time to get this albatross off my back once and for all. Living with fear as an ever present enemy is something that hangs over you eroding your self confidence and chipping away at your self esteem. It was time to put a harness on that fear.
My opportunity for entering the ring again was determined by me, in a state where nobody knew me and on my terms. I selected the Masters Games in South Australia as the venue and told nobody except my Coach/husband about what I wanted to achieve. Together, we set about mentally and physically preparing me for the fight so this time the outcome would be different…I would get into the ring this time, no pulling out, no second thoughts. Mentally, the lead up to this fight was one of the hardest things I have ever done and I experienced a roller coaster of emotions leading up to it. I questioned myself over and over again but I always kept the big picture in the back of my mind, which was how I would feel when the fight was done. I would finally be free of the anxiety that had kept me a prisoner from the first time I had attempted this.
On the day of the fight, it was the calmest I have ever felt up to this point, I knew I had done all of the work mentally and physically to prepare me for this. When the final bell for the final round sounded you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Anxiety may have won the first round but I had won the second and most important round of all, I had won the war within myself.
I am a firm believer that things come into your life for a reason, whether those things are good or bad or just simply to make you stop and think. I believe that what we hold onto emotionally and spiritually manifests itself in our physical bodies. That toxic relationship you are holding onto, that job you should of left months ago and then bang…..the sickness or injury occurs like a bolt out of the blue to gently remind you ‘I told you so’. These ‘reminders’ may manifest in minor symptoms like a flu or a common cold, or they can be more serious such as a weight gain, an auto-immune dysfunction, thyroid issues or a more sinister chronic disease.
Upon researching the topic for this article I thought it would be relevant to survey the people I come into contact with on a day to day basis, namely my personal training clients and secondly, my social media audience. I wanted to find out the health issues that were important to them. What were the burning topics they wanted more information about.
Quite surprisingly, the overwhelming response to the survey was ‘hormone health’. This was not isolated to women going thru menopause but women experiencing inflammatory problems bloating, poor digestion and elimination, skin problems, auto immune dysfunction, thyroid disorders and body fat that they just could not shift no matter how they little they ate or how hard they exercised.
As I dug a little bit deeper to find out more about what all of these women had in common it seemed that they were all ‘rushed’, ‘stressed’, ‘had no time for themselves’ let alone ‘not enough time in the day.’ A lot of them felt overwhelmed with life, coupled with trying to do it all and be it all! (sound familiar?). In regards to their diet, they were living off multiple cups of coffee throughout the day coupled with processed food and bookended with some wine of a night! (A concoction for a minor and major health melt down!)
Naturally as adults we all want to be liked, loved and to fit in on some level. If we pulled the curtain back and were completely honest with ourselves what frightens a lot of us is what other people think of us. In this pursuit of other people’s approval we have exhausted ourselves from keeping up the appearance of being kind, thoughtful, energetic, inspiring, funny, independent or strong or whatever other adjective we think we should live up to. It is more important for people to see us like this to maintain this like/love familiarity, unfortunately at the expense of our health.
The “Rushing Women’s Syndrome”:
Dr Libby Weaver a Nutritional Biochemist first identified the term ‘The Rushing Women’s Syndrome’ due to the health issues of the women she started seeing in her practice. They were stressed out, strung out and busy, busy, busy. Dr Libby observed in her clients the effect that long-term stress was having on these women. Some were presenting with polycystic ovarian syndrome, adrenal fatigue, hormonal imbalances, auto immune diseases like Graves disease and hashimoto’s, unexplained weight gain and infertility problems.
Dr Libby looked at the biochemistry of what happens to your hormones when you are in this long term stressed state and the role that nutrition and other lifestyle factors has on your overall health.
What Dr Libby found was that when we get stressed our bodies ‘sympathetic nervous’ system or our ‘fight or flight’ response is activated. This stress response causes our bodies to release adrenaline, our blood pressure fluctuates, and our digestive system shuts down. This elevated adrenaline changes the fuel that your body perceives as safe and appropriate for you to use. During this process the body is making a decision whether to use glucose (carbohydrates) or fat as the fuel it burns. Most of the time when our lifestyle is in balance, the nervous system uses a combination of both glucose and body fat as fuel. When we operate on a high level of stress all of the time the body thinks it is in danger (fight or flight) and it recruits a fast acting fuel to make it feel safe again, which is glucose.
Over time, us women have lost the ability to use body fat as a fuel because our bodies are under constant stress. This inability to burn body fat results in our fat levels increasing, our clothes getting tighter, our moods fluctuating and as a result we turn to sugar to top up the fuel tank.
“The body cannot differentiate between different types of stress whether it be financial, emotional or environmental our bodies response to this stress is always the same.’
Sarah Wilson’s Story (I Quit Sugar):
Sarah Wilson an Australian journalist, built an entire “I Quit Sugar’ movement off the back of her thyroid problems. Her burnt out thyroid later escalated into infertility, her hair started falling out, her nails started pealing off in sheaths and eventually she was diagnosed with leaky gut syndrome. At the time of her sickness she was editing Cosmopolitan magazine, running 30 miles a week, sleeping 5 hours a night and propping herself up on black coffee and red wine. She was burning the candle at both ends until her body crashed and her thyroid completely ‘imploded’.
After hitting rock bottom with her health, Sarah was forced to look at alternative ways of healing herself. A pharmaceutical drug was prescribed to help regulate her thyroid but this was a band-aid solution. Sarah knew in order to get well she had to completely overhaul her lifestyle. This lifestyle change involved a multi directional approach of eliminating all processed sugar out of her diet and starting a daily meditative practice.
The role of Nutrition on your Hormones:
The most important question to ask oneself when making a decision about what to eat is ‘will this nourish me?’ We want to eat foods that helps us stay alive and to drive the biochemical pathways of our bodies so we have the energy to look, feel and function at our most optimal level. We want to be focused on whole and real foods that give us the nutrients we need to drive the inner workings of our bodies.
When selecting what to eat, go for foods in their most natural state such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and lean cuts of protein that are packed full of macro and micronutrients. When we eat a diet of processed food or when we don’t eat enough we become deficient in certain micro-nutrients like iron, zinc and magnesium. When we restrict our food, or cut out certain food groups, this results in our biochemical pathways not functioning properly, which can have major ramifications on our health both immediately and later on in life.
How do we have ‘happy hormones’:
There are a number of things we can do on a daily basis to bring our sympathetic nervous system down which are:
- Firstly, start to recognise when you are in that sympathetic stressed out response state. Are you experiencing symptoms of feeling rushed?, Is your heart racing?, Do you have shortness of breath or are you sighing a lot? All of these are symptoms and signs of adrenaline which is driving that sympathetic dominance. Ways to overcome this are to start exploring your perception of urgency and pressure. Is what you are experiencing really worth stressing about?
Start saving this stress for situations when your’e really need to rely on that fight or flight response such as a medical emergency vs not stressing about the 200 unopened emails in your inbox.
- Get brutally honest with yourself about how much caffeine you are drinking. A lot of people would really benefit from taking a break or cutting their intake right back to ideally 1 cup per day. Caffeine is a stimulant that increases our blood pressure and our heart rate and too much of it can increase our anxiety our heartbeat and cause heart palpitations.
- Take note of what is stressing you out, is it in relation to what other people are thinking about you? Try to see situations for how they really are, rather than what you perceive is to be happening. Cull your circle of influence down to 5-10 people and take on board their opinions rather than those of strangers on social media.
- When you feel stressed and exhausted, try to reduce the amount of high intensity exercise that you do as this releases more stress hormones (cortisol) into the body. Instead, try to activate the ‘green zone’ of the parasympathetic nervous system by participating in activities that energise you rather than deplete you. This could involve Yoga, pilates, tai chi, meditation, stretching or some concentrated breath work (diaphragmatic breathing). Start listening to yourself and tuning into your body. Ask yourself the questions ‘what feels good for me?’ and ask yourself ‘why’ are you working out.
- Eat a diet that is rich in micro and macronutrients as this governs the inner workings of our bodies and determines how we think, feel and act. Eat food that is good for your soul occasionally such as take out or alcohol, everything in moderation
- Lastly, avoid restrictive dieting as this slows the metabolism down. Our bodies do not understand that we have a choice about whether to feed it or not. When we restrict our body, it thinks it is in a famine and it’s not sure when it is going to get fed again. When this process takes place we start producing an enzyme that breaks muscles down, when our muscles break down we lose energy and with less muscle mass our body fat increases. This is a very important reason why diets don’t work in the long term. No one can sustain a diet of deprivation, nor is it healthy. Instead of focusing on how little you need to eat or how intensely you have to work out, focus on how you can nourish your body optimally so it performs at it’s best.
Remember that the true currency of health is not how much we weigh, but how much energy we have!