Let’s Get Physical: Stressing Your Body to De-Stress Your Mind

I view the context in which any kind of physical activity takes place—the weight room, home gym, boxing ring, hiking trail—as a place where a type of stress testing occurs. This environment is the laboratory, and we are the scientists conducting experiments, controlling variables such as frequency, type, and intensity of effort. At one level, we gather fact-based data about ourselves: distance covered, weight lifted, repetitions performed. But at a deeper level, we also gather subjective data about ourselves concerning how well we rise to being challenged and, perhaps most importantly, how resistant or open we are to experiencing discomfort.

One of the first things I do when working with individuals after identifying their perceived stressors is assess for an open or closed stance to their current reality. This is an acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) concept, which is employed with the goal of increasing psychological flexibility or the ability to “contact the present moment fully as a conscious human being and to change or persist in behavior when doing so serves valued ends.” Avoidance or unwillingness to experience the discomfort or pain of life generally leads to greater distress, in turn lowering psychological flexibility. Think of an extremely conflict-avoidant person who often feels unheard and depressed, or a person who uses drugs to escape reality, both of whom ultimately only create more strife in their lives.

From this perspective, learning to open up to discomfort, rather than trying to avoid or alter it in some way, produces more flexibility in your approach to managing stress. At this point, you may be thinking that increasing your psychological flexibility sounds beneficial, sure, but what does that have to do with exercise? Exercise is a vehicle for practicing psychological flexibility, and most of us learn best by doing. Over time, if an individual remains consistent with exercise, we usually see a progression from the baseline. Finding and pushing the boundaries of both mental and physical discomfort is a key concept in improving at any sport or physical activity, and likewise for overcoming difficult life circumstances.

This willingness to be challenged—to temporarily be with unpleasant thoughts or bodily sensations we experience both within and outside the context of exercise—is akin to receiving an immunization that protects from stressors. Much like a vaccine, exercise artificially introduces manageable amounts of stress to the mind and body in a controlled manner.

The mental experience of stress—and getting hooked by all the thoughts, judgments, and evaluations you have about the source of stress—is perhaps the most significant barrier of all. We usually spend too much time and energy in this space of thinking, worrying, or over-analyzing, losing sight of our ability to take mindful action. That’s not a problem with exercise. Stress is induced and physical action is taken. That’s the point of exercise, after all. But it’s also a reminder that a different kind of relationship to discomfort and sacrifice can exist; one that reminds us that making moment-to-moment choices mindfully and deliberately is powerful and meaningful.

The irony here is that one of the best ways to alleviate stress is to create more of it in a controlled and purposeful way. Borrowing a phrase from the yogi circles, seek to find “the ease in the effort” in your physical activity of interest. Like a runner who’s instructed not to run with clenched fists, or a bodybuilder being reminded to breathe with each repetition, we can more effectively move through the challenging parts of life by learning to relax and be present while under pressure.

If you don’t already incorporate exercise into your life, I gently and respectfully challenge you to consider doing so as a means of cultivating your psychological flexibility. Of course, exercise alone is no cure-all. Rather, it is yet another tool to add to your toolbox, one that is unique in its ability to reconnect your body and mind. And please remember, whether you are physically active or not: if you are struggling to manage stress in an effective way, consider reaching out to a therapist for additional support.

 

source: Melissa Stringer - www.goodtherapy.org

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