Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

Transference in CrossFit

Transference is one of my favorite CrossFit topics, albeit one I’ve not touched on for a bit. Loosely defined transference is the effect of our particular type of exercise on aspects of life outside the gym that do not seem to be at all related to what we do when we train.

The most obvious examples are physical, of course. We train by performing full-body functional movements, and the more we do so the more the proper mechanics we demonstrate simply become just the way we move. You set your lower back before picking up even the smallest object, or send your hips back and load the posterior chain before you squat down to a low seat. I often smile when I catch myself doing this.

By extension, proper movement mechanics transfer to physical tasks that we do not specifically train or practice. A CrossFit Bingo athlete executed near-perfect Atlas Stone lifts at a recent competition despite the fact that CFB neither trains nor teaches classic Strongman exercises; her basic, classic CrossFit training transferred to the lifting of an “odd” object. Coach Glassman has been known to use the example of pistols (one-legged squats) in a Box making linemen who work in underground tunnels move better with fewer injuries, another clear example of physical transference of our physical training to our physical real world.

It is the non-physical effects of CrossFit training that are actually more interesting, in part because they were rather surprising in the early years of CrossFit. We willingly put ourselves into states of physical duress, activating the neuro-chemical process of the stress response system. Doing so actually trains us to handle all kinds of duress outside of the gym through a combination of a blunting of the physiological effects of stress (elevated pulse, increased breath rate, etc) and the continued psychological boost we receive by completing an arduous task. For example, in the OR a sticky situation almost never produces that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach after 10 years of CrossFit.

Each time we come out of the “dark place” we so willingly enter when we have achieved proper mechanics and consistency and then seek intensity, we reinforce the notion that we can handle stress. We come to expect that we will succeed, and this transfers to other, non-physical stressors.

This, in turn, changes how one views oneself, and that is at the same time the most profound and most unexpected element of transference in the CrossFit world. Men and women alike enter the CrossFit gym and accept the challenge of the WOD. Along with increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains they quite often find an increased understanding of just how worthy they are. Where once they would automatically defer they now add their voice. No longer do they stand silent when someone belittles them, especially when that someone does so in an attempt to maintain unearned power.

No more. The achievement of an unassisted pull-up seems trivial, but not to the woman who initially looked at a pull-up as little more than someone else’s fantasy. She’s no longer going to cower when someone gets loud, and she’s for sure not going to back down if she’s the one who is right. Uh uh…she can do a pull-up. That victory transferred out of the gym and it matters.

That guy who stood as far back as he could in gym class in high school who just did “Fran” Rx’d for the first time ever? When he looks in the mirror he sees a totally different guy. He’s up front now, thinking about his next “Fran” and getting a PR, convinced that he is not only ready for that promotion at work, but that he is going to rock that bigger gig to boot.

Constantly varied functional fitness performed at relatively high intensity produces a type of physical fitness that transfers to other physical tasks we encounter outside of the gym. Frequently applied physical stress and the mental fortitude necessary to handle it creates a strong sense of self-worth and a deeply held belief that one can succeed. That one is worthy of success.

Seeing the transference of that is perhaps the most meaningful thing I have witnessed in my 10+ years as a CrossFitter.


Shades of Grey

It’s still winter here in northeast Ohio, regardless of what the calendar may be saying. We don’t have weather right now, we just have shades of grey. My son, Randy: “I don’t know, Dad, seems like every day is either light grey or dark grey right now.”

I find it harder, and longer, and more of a conscious struggle to soldier on in the face of the obstacles and set-backs of daily life at this time of year. Tiny, insignificant inconveniences take on a wholly unreasonable level of importance (a series of dropped cell calls yesterday, for instance), making whatever shade of grey at least momentarily darker. The medical term for this is “Seasonal Affective Disorder”, and man, I’ve got it in spades. The effect is different on any affect I’m sure, but it makes me dark and edgy, on the verge of eruption, the trigger hair and phasers set on annihilate.

And yet, while my challenges and obstacles may or may not subside as grey FINALLY slides into Spring, I know that for me this is just a seasonal effect, born of geography, and borne as a consequence of geographical choice. With some 5 major moves behind me I have managed to land each time at the same latitude, plus or minus the same relative number of cloud-covered days, covered in mud and shivering.

There live among us souls for whom grey is not a seasonal phenomenon, who struggle each and every day to lighten the internal weather as they soldier on. For them even the lightest days are dark, and the best days are those that have the least pain. The darkest days are down right frightening, unknown and unknowable to the rest of us, where there may be only a speck of light somewhere on the far horizon, with consequences and choices that are more frightening, still. These individuals live in a world not of their choosing, shades of grey surrounding them always and everywhere.

Depression, real depression that descends upon a person and declines to leave of its own accord, is fundamentally different from sadness, from unhappiness. It is organic. It comes from within. While one may be able to pinpoint an event or time that might be a trigger, depression once it sets in is not reactive to any one aspect of a life. It is not present in response to something or someone bad. True depression, as well as its close cousin anxiety, gurgles and bubbles and flows from a toxic well within, a cold weather front that arrives and stays.

We live, or fancy that we live, in a country with “up by your bootstrap” values. “Come ON…get OVER it” is a mantra ingrained in our national psyche. Frankly, that actually works very well, eventually, for the sadness or unhappiness one feels in reaction to unpleasantness. Depression, however, is as unresponsive to platitude as this Cleveland season of Grey, and depression has no calendar to eventually force away the Grey.

People who inhabit this world in which shades of grey are all that exist have a problem which is as serious and life-threatening as any other “invisible” problem. Think diabetes: there is no outward manifestation of diabetes, no stigmata to alert the observer to its presence, and yet without insulin the diabetic will die. So, too, the soul afflicted with depression must be treated for what is organic and internal. Voluminous research has shown that a combination of “Talk Therapy” and medicine is necessary, and that for most it is necessary for the better part of a lifetime. Without this lives are lost. We’d not deprive the diabetic of insulin, would we? And yet…

Various medicines for “depression” are rampantly prescribed for varying degrees of sadness, unhappiness, even ennui. I confess to being conflicted about this. Who am I to deprive anyone of additional happiness, or less sadness, or even less time in the middle of life’s  great Bell Curve of emotion. But these medicines are expensive, and the “market” effects of their broader use affects the conversation about treating organic depression as the medical entity that it is. This is a hard conversation; where is the line?

Smarter people than I have failed to find a bright dividing line, to be sure, but there IS a difference. We lose people we love who live only in a world with shades of grey. At some point, for some, only the grey remains. No light is visible, and only one question exists in that world of grey. Do I live with the pain, or is today the day the pain ends? Grey descends into dark. The weather becomes deadly.

Every now and then, through any number or routes, a light begins to glow in one of these people. Nurtured, caressed, husbanded and encouraged, it grows steadily and slowly. To be sure, it waxes and it wanes; there are setbacks wherein the light may be rendered not more than a tiny ember. But in these fortunate ones it never goes out; it continues to grow, bringing light as surely as Spring lights the grey.

To witness this can be as thrilling and monumental as a sunrise in the mountains, or as subtle and delicate as the opening of an orchid. But oh ho, to be there to SEE this, to be a spectator to this, to see light where there was only dark, brilliant color where there was only grey. One night, in a darkened car on a grey, starless night, I drove home bathed in this light emanating from the back seat, so long in coming but now so bright and so strong. The obstacles and the challenges remain, as they always will, but they will seem so much smaller and more manageable in this light. It was hard to drive, so brilliant was that light as it shone through my tears.

So brilliant is that light as it awakens me each morning, still the father of not two, but three children.