When I’m having a terrible day, there are usually three big factors.
1. The inciting incident.
2. The post-incident mental loop.
3. Everything else going on in my life.
The incident happens. It doesn’t matter what it is. A rude email, traffic, oversleeping the alarm. I’m in stress response mode.
The next part is ridiculous. I can’t let the incident go. I tell the first person I can about it. I sit at my desk and stew. My stress response hormones are driving. I’m in the passenger seat.
At the peak of this chemical roller coaster I remember: I don’t have time for this! I have all the other problems in my life to contend with as well. I feel sick. Physically ill. I’m in a bad mood already, so I keep worrying about it for the rest of the day. Plus 30 seconds or so every few weeks for the next 10 years. No big deal.
Imagine my shock the day I realized it didn’t have to be that way. Oh, and in case you think I’m claiming enlightenment, I ride that particular roller coaster weekly.
My recommendation for helping with stress, anxiety, or anger management? Exercise!
Don’t click away! I know a personal trainer presenting yet another exercise-based solution has a very “hammer meets nail” appearance.
Here’s my claim:
Intentional exercise interrupts counterproductive thought loops, gives us an outlet for our aggression, and helps repair the damage unwanted stress can do to our bodies.
I’m going to avoid using many clinical terms or referring to specific diagnoses because I’m not a psychologist. I also believe that we can all benefit from minding our stress and anxiety levels. You don’t need to be at risk for CVD to focus on your heart health. The same idea applies here.
The stress response
Fight or flight – they’re both movement based. We evolved to be movers, and our stress response helps us by increasing our heart rate, shrinking our focus, and shutting down body functions that aren’t essential to escaping a threat, or fighting one.
Part of the problem comes when we experience this reaction every day, from triggers that aren’t existential threats. Then, flooded with action-boosting hormones, we don’t move. We sit there and stew.
Because we can’t fight or run away from our problems, we end up either reabsorbing or flushing the unused hormones. This chronic stress is linked to high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack or stroke, and long-term changes to the brain.
Intentional exercise is helpful with correcting all these issues. It can also improve your capacity to learn new skills. Skills which might include communication, empathy, listening, and forgiveness. Dealing with your stress or anger in a productive, movement-based, way might make it easier to avoid unhelpful conflict in the future.
When we’re overwhelmed we turn to coping behavior. The majority of behaviors we refer to as “bad habits” are just coping strategies with a scaling problem. A behavior with long-term health risks, like smoking, makes sense at the end of a horrible day, but it doesn’t look as good across months or years.
Exercise doesn’t typically have this scaling issue. When was the last time you heard someone complain about needing to cut back on the early evening bike rides?
Exercise is stress. Keep in mind that we’re intentionally applying more stress to help with what you’re already handling. Match your choice of movement to your current capacity.
Mind-body techniques like yoga, tai chi, or qi gong combine movement with intentional breathing to promote fluidity and calm.
Calm isn’t always what you’re looking for. Cardio and strength training might be the intensity level that matches your mood.
If you’re angry or frustrated, complete the cycle. Go pour that energy into a training session. Once your heart rate climbs high enough, it’s hard to stay laser focused on whatever you’re mad at.
If you’re struggling with self-worth, do something entirely selfish. Honor yourself by investing in your own body. Take control and remind yourself that this is only for you, no one else. Other people come later. After the run, the bike ride, or 12-15 reps. Compete against yourself, to win the respect of… yourself. Then go tackle whatever got you in this mood.
None of this means you must hit the gym extra hard after a bad day. That might be where your energy levels are, but you’re just as likely exhausted. This is where you move through your emotions instead of pushing through them. Put your body into motion and match the intensity to your own.
There’s evidence that 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio or strength training can make an enormous difference in your anxiety or stress level. I want you to start with just 5 minutes.
You’re stressed, angry, depressed, or maybe all three. You might not want to move. You might feel terrible. Go walk briskly for 5 minutes. Hop on a stationary bike. Grab one of your “at-home” workout routines and just do the first 5 minutes. Keep going only if you feel like it.
Remember that regulating your stress response is a skill. Intentional exercise can help you build a healthier response, cope if that fails, and rebuild either way.
If you want to read more about how exercise repairs and improves the brain, read Spark by John Ratey, MD. You’ll find arguments for using exercise as everything from a treatment for depression to a solid SAT prep strategy.
Hyatt Training is a collective of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. To read more fitness related posts like this one, follow this link.