I went to the gym yesterday. I don’t like gyms. In fact I find the whole experience seriously agonizing which is exactly why I went. I went to train my mind.
A couple of years ago I found a perfect mindfulness exercise, quite by accident. The internet brought to my attention a mildly interesting piece of science news about a strawberry that had experienced a rare but quite natural developmental hiccup: its seeds had started to sprout while still on the berry. There were tiny leaves on it, like little green feathers.
The photo made me and other trypophobic people freak out.
Trypophobia, or ”fear of holes” is a real but not very serious (and therefore not clinically recognized) miswiring of the brain occuring in some people. Trypophobic people can have a strong averse mental reaction with goosebumps and all to things that have certain patterns of holes or other uneven marks. It apparently has something to do with the evolutionarily guided avoidance of disease and rotten things on overdrive, or something like that. Do an image search, but at your own risk if you are unsure about your trypophobia status.
This horrifying freak of nature in the format of a strawberry experiencing unintended vivipary was interesting enough for me to read the article despite the goosebumps and the shivering. I loved how it showed, contrary to what some people want to believe, that nature is anything but perfect. It is downright sloppy. My favorite example is legs on snakes: the whole blueprint for how to build legs is still there in snakes, it just has a kind of ”ignore this part” post-it note on it. Sometimes the note gets ignored and hey, snakes with legs.
So there I was, painfully aware how horrified my brain was at the sight of the freak strawberry and at the same time thinking that it was the coolest thing that day. I noticed the contradiction, and how freaking cool was that? I knew I was perfectly safe but my brain wanted me to flail my hands around and run away. I could watch it happen from the inside of my mind. I had time to pay attention to it. And the best thing was that I could trigger it at will. I didn’t even have to look at the photo, just thinking about it and looking at the visual memory was enough.
So for days and weeks, every now and then I would look at that mental image to trigger the horror and ride it. I could feel the waves of goosebumps flow across my scalp and neck and downwards, the increased heartbeat, the heat on my face. The sympathetic nervous system at work, that is. The really funny part was to notice how the effect weakened after being triggered many times in a row. That was perfectly in line with how I knew messages in the body are passed: from nerve to nerve using neurotransmitters and to organs using hormones. Both get depleted and/or saturated, and the goosebump reaction wanes.
It was a powerful exercise. I could reliably and safely train to separate how I felt and what I thought about that feeling, and to do that using a strong, embodied feeling. I have unfortunately passed this class by now – the effect is still there (let me try right now… yes) but it’s very mild on the specific image, and generally weaker on other trypophobia inducing images. (That’s neuroplasticity, by the way.) But I’ve taken the lesson to heart.
I’ve used it to not get frustrated by migraines. It still hurts but I’m calmer about it. I use it nearly daily when I have to get out of the warm shower and feel the cold air on my wet skin. But by far the most amazing moment in this regard was some intentionally vague amount of time ago, when I had the opportunity to feel intense, raging, white-hot jealousy like never before in my life. It felt horrible, verging on unbearable. I was literally panting under its weight. But while I was feeling like that, in another corner of my mind I was utterly awestruck about this wonder of evolution: my genome was able to produce all of these physical symptoms on its own to protect its interests? (Not mine, which were kind of the opposite.) ”I”, the ghost in my machine, was firmly on the passenger’s seat on this carriage. In a third corner I was laughing my ass off at myself. I had gotten exactly what I had ordered, a serving of just desserts with a side dish of poetic justice. The hilarity of it was unquestionable even when the joke was on me.
And now I’ve used this technique of separating the feeling and the thought about the feeling at the gym. On an intellectual level I have wanted to go. It would be good for me and particularly it would be good for my running and that I actually enjoy doing (and would like to get better at). But the emotional experience of thinking about going there is pure aversion. I looked at that feeling and concluded it is again my fixed mindset: I just don’t want to put myself in a situation where it’s clear to see I don’t know what I’m doing and, much much worse, risk getting helped by random onlookers.
Based on my reading (The confidence gap by Russ Harris, The willpower instinct by Kelly McGonigal) I knew that it’s not possible to just push yourself through something like that with sheer willpower, it just isn’t that powerful. I don’t mean just not in me. It’s not powerful enough in anyone in the long run, it’s a myth. The trick I would need to use would be some kind of reframing, to motivate me from another angle.
And ha! I found it. There it was. Going to the gym would be a well defined and safe context that would reliably bring up that feeling of ”I don’t want to because I don’t know how to and people will see that”. I can use that. It’s freak strawberry all over again.
And that got me there. And it was every bit as agonizing as I predicted. Not for the muscles, that part I could handle, had I worked hard enough to cause any pain. My pain happened in the mind. It’s still bringing tears to my eyes to think about it. But I also got another round of a triple-layered emotional experience. It was ”fucking fuck I hate this shit so much” – ”yes! there’s that feeling I came to look at, awesome” – ”wait, did I just get happy about being unhappy? how much fun is that?”
I think I’ll go again. Gym going is all about the repetition, isn’t it? It’s the same about neuroplasticity.
P.S. No, I’m not heroic enough to have done this on my own. I was asked to come for company, in other words, to do something for someone else which is far easier than doing something for myself. That motivated me to look for the reframing. I also needed an empathic and trustworthy recipient for my emo bitching both during and after. I’m deeply grateful for both.