How Neuroscience and Strength Training Provide Tools for Self-Esteem

Feeling safe, calm, and confident in our bodies is a sign of optimal mental health. These states of being are linked to creativity, curiosity, flexibility, and self-awareness, similar to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as the state of “flow.” These states make us want to engage, explore, and grow with the world around us. Feeling good in our bodies leads to a higher sense of self-esteem and overall joy. They are what make life colorful, meaningful, and worth living.

Neuroscience shows that this relaxed state is built upon present moment awareness, whereas trauma can leave us continually reliving the frozen past or anxiety can have us apprehensively scanning the future for threat. We can become hijacked from the relaxed state when unprocessed trauma, anxiety, mood disorders, and/or chronic stress take over the driver’s seat.

However, we can learn to take back the wheel and access states of flow more frequently by learning and applying tools of emotional self-regulation. Emotional self-regulation is the process of achieving a balance between our amygdala (our emotional fear center) and our prefrontal cortex (our mindful watcher and reflector). When these systems are in balance, our amygdala is able to scan and signal an alarm for threat in the environment, but our prefrontal cortex is able to evaluate and decide if the threat is real. If it’s not, the prefrontal cortex shuts down the stress response and homeostasis returns. The issues begin when we have an overactive amygdala that constantly overrides our prefrontal cortex and decides that most things in our environments are threats. As you can imagine, this exhausts our body by constantly pumping out stress hormones, preparing our muscles for fight or flight, and narrowing our field of attention. Instead, we become stuck in a state of fear, survival, inflexibility, and disconnection from both ourselves and others.

Learning to strengthen the relationship between our prefrontal cortex and amygdala so that the prefrontal cortex can make the final decisions is an important step in learning to live a life of mindful choice and self-esteem rather than one of reactivity.

As trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk remind us, our brain gives us two options for self-regulation: learning to regulate our emotions from the top down (with the prefrontal cortex) or from the bottom up (through our autonomic nervous system). Top-down approaches include mindfulness, challenging our faulty thoughts, using positive affirmations, and gaining insight through talk therapy. Bottom-up approaches include breathing, bodywork, somatic therapies, yoga, and chanting.

Although useful, top-down approaches have their limitations because a lot of unprocessed trauma and emotion live directly in the body and show up in our posture, eye contact, muscle tension, and movements. No amount of talk therapy is going to release these blocks in the body and no matter how diligently we practice our positive thinking, we can still find ourselves ashamed and confused when our body and amygdala take over and tell us a different story than what we are saying in the mirror.

This is why personally I’ve found bottom-up approaches to be far more effective in building self-esteem. If I can’t feel something viscerally or in my body, it just feels like empty lip service. I talked about my larger journey of developing self-efficacy in my last post, and beginning to investigate beliefs of learned helplessness took me down a path which eventually led me to stumble upon strength training.

Strength training became an important tool for developing self-esteem from the body up. What I love about strength training is the embodied sense of strength and mastery that I feel while doing it. That feeling of ‘I can,” “I will,” and “I am” courses through my muscles and ligaments in a pleasantly hot, tingling sensation after I set down the final weight. Working out, for me, is not about the desire for a thinner body, but instead about the embodied sense of empowerment that only the feel of sweat running down my skin and the alive sense of agency after pushing myself to finish can induce.

Working out and movement has allowed me to re-connect to my body and have better awareness and acceptance of my internal body sensations. I learned how to gently push myself through the beginning stages of discomfort where the sweat, the overheating, and the heart-beating felt more panic-inducing than empowering. I learned to communicate and trust my body and its unique speed and needs rather than feeling pressure to follow an external program. I learned that through stretching my body didn’t have to stay rigid, tight, and afraid, but slowly, over time, would open up and unfurl longer. I’m able to experience a sense of power and strength in my body first. I don’t just think it or talk about it, I feel it and become it. The thoughts arise out of the felt experience. And if I forget it? I go back to the weights; I go back to the practice.

At the end of the day, it was hard for me to trust an affirmation, no matter how well-meaning, when it felt like meaningless words, but I could trust my actual, real lived experience. I could finally begin to trust my own capacity for growth, and sometimes that looks like just taking the first step forward. Or picking up the first weight.

I found strength-training to be a powerful tool for developing self-esteem, however, other types of movement offer their own power. Kundalini yoga is known for strengthening the nervous system and increasing felt energy in your body, walking is good for practicing mindfulness and being in nature, while stretching is a practice in flexibility, slowing down, and tuning into our internal sensations.

Movement, breath, and mindfulness can often be combined into a powerful practice of rewiring our brain and body towards integration and self-regulation. We have the power to change our internal states of being, and if we often find ourselves apathetic, burnt out, or anxious, it’s time look at how the current breakthroughs in neuroscience can give us the tools to do so.

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