My Transition From Couch Potato To Fitness Professional

23 Jul

Like an estimated 15-20% of the population, I am what Dr. Elaine Aron describes in her best-selling book as a highly sensitive person (or HSP, if you will). If you’re unfamiliar with the concept but are curious about it, you can go to her website at www.hsperson.com. If you suspect that you may be a highly sensitive person (or even if you just like taking online quizzes), you can take the self-test by clicking http://www.hsperson.com/pages/test.htm

Dr. Aron’s site provides an excellent overview of what traits characterize highly sensitive people in general. But for the time being, I’d like to focus on what it means for me personally:

There are many positives for me as a result of this trait. Among them:

– I’m deeply passionate about music; I sing, play the guitar, and dabble with the bass and harmonica.

– I’m a tactful person who chooses his words carefully. I believe one can be honest without being brutal. Even if I vehemently disagree with somebody , I do so respectfully.

– I have an empathetic nature that people intuitively sense. For example, relatives and friends have acknowledged my patience and tenderness with my sister, Patty, who has Down Syndrome, People at the various clubs I have worked at have also told me that my manner puts them at ease. I got an unusual compliment from a young woman when I was training for Group Centergy, 3 years ago. She said that I have a friendly face, and that she was petrified when she had to practice teaching in front of the rest of us, until she looked at me and “totally relaxed”.

– I’m introspective and given to deep reflection, a characteristic that allows me to question things, but keep an open mind. While I don’t necessarily accept what I’m told at face value, I do listen to other people’s points of view, even if they challenge my beliefs.

Being an HSP has also presented some daunting challenges for me: I tend to have strong physiological and emotional reactions to stress. I’m also susceptible to anxiety, depression and insomnia. Because my nature didn’t fall in line with the tough-talking, boisterous, aggressive male that is so often put forth as the ideal, I developed low esteem and became painfully shy. I also began to self-medicate — first through food, then through cigarettes, and finally through alcohol and (to a lesser extent) marijuana — in order to ease my angst. But the means I had chosen as a coping mechanism backfired, and over time they only exacerbated my self-consciousness and overall lack of confidence. My anxiety, depression and insomnia also intensified. The low point came just before my 18th birthday, when, one night, unable to sleep, I suffered an anxiety attack so severe that I took an overdose of pills in desperation. When I woke my mother to tell her what I had done and saw the pain that I had caused, I immediately felt remorseful. I’ll never forget that, nor will I ever forget how horrible my overdose made me feel for days after the fact.

I never made another attempt on my life after that. But frequent bouts of anxiety and insomnia continued to undermine my ability to function optimally. It was clear that the way I was living wasn’t working, and something had to give. The changes happened incrementally, and were brought about by a series of events that stirred profound soul searching. After suffering a particularly horrendous panic attack one night as a result of some pot I had smoked, I gave it up for good in 1991. At about this same time, I looked at a picture of myself and was shocked to see that I looked considerably older than I actually was. I made the decision to start watching what I ate, and to begin an exercise routine consisting of walking and light weight training.

The most traumatic moment of all, however, occurred later that year: My brilliant, but troubled older sister had made what I would conservatively estimate at a dozen suicide attempts. On August 27th she made her final attempt, which succeeded. My family and I were devastated, and we still mourn and grieve for her dearly to this day. But I was also scared for myself: Could I eventually end up like that?! This thought shook me so badly that I began to think even more seriously about the connection between body and mind. I made a commitment to quit smoking (which I did, after a year and several false starts), to drink only in moderation, and to increase the intensity of my exercise routine by incorporating running and heavy weight training.

As I began to look healthier, I started to get more attention from women (a welcome development, to be sure), and when I was in my mid-twenties I got involved in my first serious relationship. It was with a woman who flirted with me at a dance at our Parish. This pleased me greatly, because she had immediately caught my eye as well. We plunged headlong into an intense romance, but there was a complicating factor: Despite the changes I had made, I was still experiencing bouts of anxiety that were sometimes debiliating. This strained our relationship, and it eventually came to a painful end. But once again there was a silver lining, in that I learned that there was one final thing that was undermining me on my path to greater wellness: my unusually high physiological sensitivity to caffeine. Once I gave it up, I almost immediately felt less edgy and more relaxed and began to sleep much better. This brought me a tremendous sense of peace and relief.

With every positive change I made, I slowly began to come out of my shell. But giving up caffeine proved to be the point where the best in me began to shine through. Being strong, fit and healthy gave me a newfound sense of confidence, and over time, I felt increasingly comfortable in my own skin. Whereas I had once felt anxious and overwhelmed in social situations, I now found that I enjoyed conversing with people, and for the most part, they seemed to reciprocate. As I got to know people and allowed them to get to know me, I felt more connected and less isolated. But the best connection I made of all was with an adorable woman who had coincidentally walked into my life very shortly after my previous relationship had ended. I have no doubt that if Cathy and I had met five years prior, we wouldn’t have hit it off the way we did. As it is, we’ve been married for 14 years. Timing, as they say, is everything.

The changes were such that friends who had known me prior couldn’t believe I was the same person. But of course, it was my devotion to health, fitness, and overall wellness that brought the best in me as an HSP. I have a lot to offer as a fitness professional because of this trait. My approach is empathetic, encouraging, and motivating. I will create an atmosphere in which you can feel safe and comfortable, and you needn’t fear being judged. I can empathize with whatever impediments to your fitness goals you’re struggling with, because I’ve been there and back. By working as your personal trainer, I can offer you a path by which you, too, can bring out the best in yourself.

5 Responses to “My Transition From Couch Potato To Fitness Professional”

  1. Miranda July 23, 2012 at 5:40 pm #

    Bravo, Andy!!

  2. Tracy August 21, 2012 at 1:46 am #

    Andy,
    Thank you for sharing your story. You continue to educate and inspire the rest of us with your honesty.

    • andysullivanmindandbody August 24, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

      Hi Tracy,

      Thanks for taking the time to read my blog, and thanks for your kind words! Your feedback it very encouraging!

  3. Jen October 18, 2012 at 2:55 am #

    Hi Andy! That was a great post, and very courageous too. Congratulations on your successes, its not an easy road and thank you – for working so hard to bring out the best in others. I love your teaching style, both relaxed and motivating. Keep up the great work, my fitness needs you!

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