by ELLEN DONOGHUE
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”?
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.