Got Paleo Brain? Pre-Workout Anxiety Is Real (But Preventable)

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Ask the Doc: Got Paleo Brain? Pre-Workout Anxiety Is Real (But Preventable)
Have you ever walked into the gym with “WOD dread” – a sense of anxiety about what the workout has in store? Ever feel anxious about how you will perform compared to your previous workouts or to other people? Have you left the gym with a vocal inner-critic on your shoulder ticking off one-by-one the things you should have done better? If you said “yes” to any of these questions, here are three pieces of good news. One, you are not alone. Others in your gym are experiencing pre-workout dread and an overzealous inner-critic. Two, occasional sensations of anxiety and fear are normal and are not your fault. They result from an evolutionary legacy that hardwired our brains to be hypervigilant towards threats, real or imagined. And three, there are ways to reduce or prevent unnecessary pre-workout anxiety and post-workout criticism by training the mind to rewire the brain toward greater confidence and calmness.

What is going on inside that three pound glob of neurons that causes you to sometimes feel dread or anxiety about a WOD? Once again our Paleolithic ancestry is meddling with modern day well-being in ways we would have expected evolution to make obsolete. This time rather than it being our gut and its sensitivity to grains and dairy among other things, evolution is messing with our brains. A new area of neuroscience research reveals that the modern human brain in many ways still operates in Paleolithic survival mode (Hanson and Mendius 2009, Hanson 2013). Increased understanding about evolution of the human digestive system has led many people to thrive on Paleo and Whole30 nutritional approaches. Similarly, neuroscientists now know that evolution plays an essential role in the modern human nervous system. And just as we can modify our diet to increase our health, we can also change our brains to enhance our well-being.

Why Do We Have “Paleo Brains”?

Why Do We Have "Paleo Brains"?

[W]e inherited an over-preoccupation toward threats that has outdated its evolutionary advantage.
First, let’s review the human timeline. Domestication of plants and animals began only about 12,000 years ago. Homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years. That may seem like a long time, but it is only a blip when you consider the 60 million years of evolution of our primate ancestors. But here’s the clincher: our nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years, along with the nervous systems of jellyfish, bats, lizards, and monkeys (Hanson 2013). That long evolutionary legacy lingers with modern humans in ways we have only recently become aware.

Daily predicaments facing modern humans vary in severity from the trivial to the serious, depending on many factors. In general, most of us who are able to read this article are “okay.” We are satisfactorily navigating this complex and dynamic world. For our ancestors, however, survival was key, and passing on genes was the name of the game. As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson puts it, our ancestors lived by the motto “Eat lunch today. Don’t be someone else’s lunch today” (Hanson 2013). The human nervous system evolved to become supremely adept at identifying threats and avoiding harms. As a result, we inherited an over-preoccupation toward threats that has outdated its evolutionary advantage. Most modern day humans do not need a nervous system hardwired to avoid being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger (Hanson 2013). But this is what we inherited.

In a gym context, “Paleo brain” might manifest in feelings of fear, dread, or anxiety prior to working out or performing a lift. The perceived threat is often much smaller and more manageable than we feared. Our hypervigilance can be excessive, explaining why pre-workout anxiety is normal but not necessary. And what often goes unnoticed is that we tend to succeed or perform satisfactorily way more often than our dread would suggest reasonable to expect.
We are oriented to prepare ourselves for “this is going to be bad” rather than “this is going to be good.” That is our ancestral brain hard at work keeping us from harm, inclined to forget or dismiss the good experiences yet remember every fine detail of the things that could or did go wrong. Sure we need to be aware of cars cutting us off in traffic, or a barbell slipping off a rack. Our brains are very good at this. But enough is enough.

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