The fear response. Why it matters that we remain relaxed when working out.

Posted by & filed under Exercise and Training, Health and Fitness.

Wouldn’t it be good to get the most out of whatever we do?  And one of the things that stops this is tension.  Tension levels can creep up quite invidiously – we can be very tense at rest and not even realise it.  A term for this tension is the Fear Response or Startle, the extreme of which we would go into if an enraged warthog burst into our house – or a baseball bat suddenly flew towards us:


The picture shows the physicalities of startle:  overall the body curls up and the hands fly up to shield the face, all in an effort to protect the front of the body, the eyes and the jaw.

The problem is that having gone into Startle, we don’t automatically come out of it. Many muscles fire up to protect us and not all of them let go when the danger has passed, leading to a background tension that holds us back from achieving our best.

In detail:

  • The head goes forwards and down to protect the throat and the fragile very top of the spine.  This tenses the muscles at the front of the throat.
  • The shoulders lift up towards the ears to shield those same areas, tensing the shoulder elevators.
  • The ribs lock down to protect the heart and the lungs.  The after effect stops the ribs from opening and closing freely when we breathe.
  • The bottom squeezes tight to tip the pelvis under, working with the abs, to protect the internal organs.
  • All the facial muscles tense, along with the jaw and the eye muscles, to protect the precious eyes and jaw.
  • The muscles on the front of the chest contract to draw the shoulders down and forwards to protect the throat, upper rib cage, heart and lungs.
  • The abs contract along with the deep spinal muscles and pelvic floor to flex us forwards in order to shield our guts.  This also makes us more stable and able to move away more quickly.
  • The leg muscles contract, starting with the inner thighs, to pull the legs into us, to protect the pelvic floor and to lower our centre of gravity again to make us more stable.

What is interesting about all of this is that we all seem to carry some of these most of the time: tense, hunched shoulders; jaw grinding; poor breathing patterns; or we poke our heads forwards.

It is not easy to let these things go, but, boy, is it relaxing when we do.

Various things set this Startle response off – general day to day stress plays a big part.  But so does trauma of any kind.  For example, last week one of my clients was playing with her young dog on a dog walk.  The dog, a chocolate Lab, jumped up and banged hard into the bridge of her nose, knocking her unconscious.  She came to with both her Labradors jumping up and down on her, wondering what had happened to their pack leader. This particular client is highly knowledgeable about stress and very good at relaxing,  but was unaware of this Startle Response.  So as we worked through the various muscles involved she found, to her surprise that many of them had not let go despite her best efforts.

And this is where the problem lies.  All sorts of unpredictable stuff happens to us in our lives, unless we don’t get out of bed – which would lead to differently awful consequences.  Life’s incidents set off the fear response and those protective muscles do not let go willingly.  Add to this lifestyle positions – sitting, driving, pushing a buggy and so on and we really are up against it when trying to function optimally as a human being.  This is one reason why people slowly regress their exercise from squash/football/tennis and so on to running, cycling, and ultimately swimming or spinning.

As a trainer, I now have people restore their natural relaxed breathing patterns, which usually involves having to relax the shoulders and neck.  Then when they move a heavy weight – by pushing/pulling/squatting/lunging or whatever, the weight moves absolutely effortlessly.  As the reps mount, it takes more concentration to keep the relaxed breathing going, so they feel a huge difference in how how much harder it is to move that weight when they breathe with a tight throat, for example.  When I am out running, the more I can relax my breathing, the faster I go and I can feel my brain saying, ‘Hey, its alright to be out of breath.  I’m not going to die; its OK to go accelerate’.

It is a useful exercise right now to run through the areas of the body above and see what can be done to relax them.  We are all different in where we hold tension, but we are all the same in that we all hold unnecessary tension. Unless you are a superstar like Usain Bolt or Roger Federer.  The art of real performance improvement lies in recognising these held patterns and learning how to release them.  Then pushing ourselves hard becomes a relaxing joy.


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