How CrossFit Taught Me Distress Tolerance
What is distress tolerance?
“Marsha Linehan states, ‘DBT [Dialectical Behavioral Therapy] emphasizes learning to bear pain skillfully. The ability to tolerate and accept distress is an essential mental health goal for at least two reasons. First, pain and distress are a part of life; they cannot be entirely avoided or removed. The inability to accept this immutable fact itself leads to increased pain and suffering. Second, distress tolerance, at least over the short run, is part and parcel of any attempt to change oneself; otherwise, impulsive actions will interfere with efforts to establish desired changes.’” (from dbtselfhelp.com)
Being a survivor of abusive and traumatic situations, distress tolerance can be hard to manage. During trauma, you learn to keep yourself alive while you are in an unsafe situation that is usually out of your control. This actually makes most of us really good at handling an acute crisis. I am the person you want with you in the hospital or during a natural disaster. However, being in distress all the time due to trauma also means that any slightly distressing event automatically triggers fear and panic. Being unsafe so often, I believe, makes you panic faster and perceive any distressing situation as traumatic. For example, a coworker says they do not like your idea at work and you panic and believe you are unsafe because in the past people who did not like something you did may have been actually physically or emotionally abused you. Your brain can’t handle the distress of a possibly traumatic moment happening, so at the first sign of distress, you cannot function or you function in unhealthy ways.
As you heal from trauma, it is hard to grow your ability to tolerate and accept normal distress- distress that comes from everyday life and is not something that will harm you like what happened in the abusive situations you were in at other times in your life.
This has been hard for me to learn because you need to practice distress tolerance in slow enough increments to not trigger your panic and self-preservation mode that comes from trauma. In DBT, they use four strategies to help you learn distress tolerance. They are: distracting, self-soothing, improving the moment, and thinking of pros and cons. Honestly, this approach never worked for me. This does not mean DBT does not work, it does! However, we are all different and we all have different events and core beliefs that create who we are and how our brain works, so parts of the DBT approach may not work for everyone. For me, I think the trauma was just too insidious and the pain and fear was so, so deep that those four strategies were not working. (Remember, that is just me, and those DBT tools do work for thousands and thousands of people. They are absolutely worth trying and now that my distress tolerance level has increased, I can use those tools more often.)
I did find a different tool that increased my distress tolerance, and that is CrossFit. If you are like me and have a hard time using the more common tools to learn distress tolerance, I thought knowing how and why CrossFit helped me might help you.
What is CrossFit?
CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. Most workouts are fast and technically challenging. Workouts that are slower are often more difficult in the type of movement you are doing and the amount of weight you use. For me, CrossFit is a combination of a mental and physical challenge that you get through at every workout.
How did CrossFit teach me distress tolerance?
CrossFit is vulnerable for some people because you work out with a group of people and you all record your time and/or repetitions. At each workout you learn to handle the distress of being with others and giving up your attachment to competition, specific outcomes, and caring what other people think about you. The CrossFit environment teaches that no one is better than anyone else because of their time, strength, or abilities.
Some workouts are so high intensity that you don’t know if you can finish the workout. You have to check in with yourself, quickly and in the present moment, to know whether you need to change your pace so you still have energy to finish, or if fear of not being good enough or fast enough is taking over and you actually can push yourself a bit harder. This helps you learn to be mindful and stay in the moment and assess it accurately rather than letting your mind project too far into the future or past and let destructive thoughts seep in. The pace of the workout gives you no choice but to assess quickly and move on.
Some movements you can’t do and you have to learn to listen to your body and honor it. If your knee hurts and adjusting your stance does not help, you may have to modify the movement or do something else. Some people think distress tolerance means getting through something no matter how bad it is, but that is inaccurate. Distress tolerance is analyzing the moment and listening to yourself, your body, and your environment and knowing what is the safest course of action that will still move you forward. Some people talk about powering through in CrossFit. Sure, some people may do that, but I would say that most people are navigating that fine line of what is a mental barrier and what is a physical barrier and they “power through” when they know they have the capacity to work harder. You would not “power through” if you knew your body or mind could not handle what you were doing.
Some movements are scary to you and you have to help your brain do the thing anyway (safely) and not just say “I can’t.” For some people that is getting over the fear of jumping onto a 16” high box, for others it is jumping onto a 40” high box. For me, I was afraid that I could not carry another person, but I found out that I can (see title photo.) You learn to do things that scare you. I used to wake up every morning and think; “I can’t do this. I can’t believe I have to go through another day.” Now I wake up in the morning and I think; “Before I assume I can’t get through another day, let me go to CrossFit first and see if I can.”
Often when I am in a moment that triggers a trauma response in everyday life, I know that if I got through a CrossFit workout, I can get through anything. And, by getting through a CrossFit workout I mean getting through something that was hard and sometimes scary, but that I navigated in a successful way. Maybe not in a perfect way or in the way I hoped it would have gone, but in a way that was safe, made me stronger, and gave me my own personal power. I remember those lessons and use them in the rest of my life.
Why did CrossFit work for me when other more conventional ways of teaching distress tolerance did not?
I am not sure, but first I think the physicality of CrossFit overrode the trauma and let my brain slow down. Trying to use common distress tolerance tools such as thinking of pro’s and con’s or distracting myself was just was too slow for me. My mind works way too fast to go through those intervention processes. In CrossFit my body is working hard and I think that actually slows down my brain from going directly into panic. This is just my theory.
Being in situations where I tolerated distress, consistently, day after day, was a way for me to practice distress tolerance in a safe and accessible manner. Practicing being distressed while not automatically panicking and still being safe has reprogrammed my brain to not panic at the first sign of distress. The workouts are short and you get to practice bearing pain skillfully in small doses, which is not overwhelming or too scary. As I practiced getting through fear and pain in small doses each day, my brain was able to tolerate all different kinds of distress better. The distress of someone disagreeing with me. The distress of being in public places. The distress of someone harassing me. (If you want to know more about reprogramming the way your brain processes information and situations, look up neuroplasticity and the research around how trauma creates pathways in the brain.)
CrossFit was a safe space for me to take these steps because in the end, I actually was safe. The coaches were there, no one would let anything bad happen to me, the people are kind and caring. We need actual safe places to practice distress tolerance. Some people can do that by recalling distressing moments while in therapy and working through them with their therapist. For me, that did not actually bring the full panic mode on so I was never able to work through distress in real time, in a safe space. CrossFit created that safe space for me.
CrossFit, for me, accessed somatic power. Dr. Laura Brown says there are four ways people can empower themselves, and somatic power is one of those. Somatic power is power in our own bodies. I did not have that before CrossFit and it made the world seem like a very unsafe space for me. I needed to know that I was safe in my own body and I had the internal power to take care of myself when I was distressed. I was able to do that in CrossFit by not only actually becoming physically more powerful, but by getting myself through workouts and by having coaches that helped me know how to analyze what I can and can’t do safely and effectively.
I am not saying you need to do CrossFit to learn distress tolerance. I am saying that there are many paths to this healing process and you may find healing in some of the most unlikely places. Think about the things in your life that create a bit of distress that can help you take small steps to handling the distress in the moment and being successful with it. For some people that might be working on a challenging knitting pattern, some people find that yoga works, and yet others learn distress tolerance by playing challenging games. Find what works for you.