Practice cognitive behavioral therapy, or just run a marathon

I came across this year-old article by Brad Stulberg in New York Magazine today, outlining a little-appreciated perk of frequent physical exertion:

While the traditional benefits of vigorous exercise — like prevention and treatment of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, and osteoporosis — are well known and often reported, the most powerful benefit might be the lesson that my coach imparted to me: In a world where comfort is king, arduous physical activity provides a rare opportunity to practice suffering.

Stulberg is focusing here—I think—on physical suffering, but the article resonated with a lot of what I’ve learned in dealing with emotional pain as well. Emotions avoided become amplified; emotions confronted fade away.  “I try to feel and sit with the pain,” one cyclist told Stulberg. If she ever needs a second career, she could double as a cognitive-behavioral therapist: sitting with emotions you don’t like until you are used to them is one of its central tenants.

Most literature on clinical anxiety will tell you that fear does not become a disorder until you fail to heed FDR and become afraid of the fear itself. Panic attacks are extremely uncomfortable, and someone afflicted with them will (ahem) go to life-altering, sometimes absurd extents to avoid them. But if you learn to move into the feeling, and find yourself whole upon emerging to the other side, a strange thing happens: the fear itself fades away. Panic loses its power once you decide not to panic. It just takes some intentional controlled suffering, and maybe steal the mantra of Stulberg’s Olympic marathoner: “calm, calm, calm; relax, relax, relax.”

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