I have been a qualified Personal Trainer for nearly 11 years now, but one of the things that might surprise you to know is that I used to feel very uncomfortable in gyms.
I was not a particularly social creature when I was young and often felt awkward, uncomfortable and even like I was being judged when in a group setting.
This social anxiety is something that I have had to work hard to overcome, but still often ticks along in the background.
When I started to learn about more about Physiology, the Vagus Nerve and our Social Engagement system; it really clicked with me and made a lot of sense.
Your body is constantly assessing the level of threat in your local environment. It is reading the setting, the decor; it’s listening for sound and it is reading the body language and actions of other people.
It is constantly assessing all of this information for both real and perceived cues of safety and cues of danger.
All of this is happening subconsciously, you aren’t aware of it.
But this information produces a State, which then acts as a filter for information that you will go on to receive.
You will have experienced this yourself. When you are having a bad day, it is easy for it to feel like everything is going wrong. This is because your State has been changed and now the way in which you perceive information about the things you see, hear and feel; has changed.
A lot of the people I work with hate the gym and classes.
They feel like they are being watched, judged and they feel like they are not capable. They might feel like they are getting tired faster than normal.
If you aren’t one of those people, this might sound like madness.
But it can feel very real for many people.
This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the gym. It is just how certain people react to these spaces and environments.
What we need to do as individuals is to understand what makes us feel safe or unsafe.
- What are the cues of safety that we can perceive to make us feel safe and confident in our surroundings?
- What are the cues that dislodge us from that feeling of safety?
If we can be aware of these cues, both of safety and danger, then we can start to build a foundation for us to operate in a safe and confident way.
If this is you, then there are steps that you can take to help yourself feel safe.
1. Firstly, stop and focus on your breath. Slow it down and focus on breathing through your nose. Really pay attention to it and control your rhythm.
This serves two purposes. One, it brings your attention to the pace and rhythm of your breath and two, it brings your attention away from any external cues that are potentially producing cues of danger.
2. Stay present. Some of your change of state might not be related to what is happening now, but related to what you perceive to be happening. You might be thinking that other people are fitter, stronger or faster; or that people are watching. You might think you are going to struggle or be embarrassed, but understand that none of this is happening, it is your nervous system trying to check for danger IN PREPARATION TO KEEP YOU SAFE. Pay attention to your breath and focus on what is directly happening, right now in your immediate environment.
3. Try to take control of your own state. In step one, we removed your attention from external cues and brought it internal. Focus on that slow, controlled rate of breathing and try to feel light and safe within your body.
4. As you begin to exercise, continue to give yourself those cues of safety. Listen to the rhythm of the music and allow yourself to perceive it as enjoyable. Don’t think people are watching you, consider that everyone is getting absorbed in their own experience and their own training session, just like you.
5. As you begin to exercise, continue to breathe. When we exercise, our breathing can change and inadvertently give us cues of danger. But understand that the change in our breathing is only in response to the activity. It is a sign of our body working harder. If you are new to exercise, allow yourself to begin slowly and just do what you can to start with. It is important that you feel safe to start with.
Once you have experienced your first few workouts, you will then have experience of what it feels like to feel safe whilst you are working hard. But allow yourself to safely build that experience.
When you feel yourself starting to feel unsafe or overwhelmed, slow your breathing down and bring your state back to that initial feeling of calm and safety.
Start slowly, build up gradually and check in with yourself.
Have a great workout.