Often stress, anxiety, and depression are described as the feeling of drowning; hopelessly being pulled down into the depths of despair. Imagine drowning, being offered a supply of oxygen, and then turning it down because you’re too busy drowning. That is often how we treat exercise during these times. Exercise is vital for a healthy body and healthy mind. We suffer tremendously in its absence. Instead of seeing exercise as another “thing” to add to an already busy and stressful life, I like to encourage people to see it as a way to increase their capacity. We pour out so much of ourselves each day for our work and our families that the idea of adding in something extra seems impossible but that is not what exercise is. It is not a pouring out but instead, an investment that increases the size of our container and lets us continue to pour without becoming empty. Below, I’ve listed five specific ways in which physical challenges can help us deal with stress.
Though we feel stress in the moment, what we are actually stressed about almost always exists in either the past or the future. We are thinking about something that happened in the past or we are considering the future. When we are stuck in this type of stress, we lose out on the experience of the presence. We cannot disconnect from our thoughts about whatever is stressing us out enough to enjoy or focus on what is right before us. The beauty of an intense workout is that it takes your focus and down the hierarchy of needs right to the most basic one: oxygen. Whatever was previously stealing all of your conscious thought is now pushed out by complete focus on the task at hand and getting enough oxygen to your body. This forced presence of mind is a tremendous stress relief and a reset to your consciousness, allowing you to better live in the present moment.
Life is full of distractions. You’re constantly being bombarded by emails, texts, meetings, and family demands. On top of that, if you’re like most people, you’re subconsciously pulling out your phone, opening social media, or turning on a podcast or a TV show the rest of the time. This fast-paced chaotic life doesn’t allow much time for processing emotions or thoughts. When was the last time you had 60 minutes of distraction-free time to think? How about 30 minutes? 15? Zone 2 cardio is one of the best ways to give yourself this gift. Zone 2 cardio is any activity in which you could hold a conversation but it would be slightly challenging. Another mode of identifying zone 2 cardio is that your respiratory and heart rates are increased but you can still breathe through your nose primarily. During this type of activity, your brain only has to devote minimal focus towards completing the task and can think and process through whatever else has been resting in the subconscious mind. Try to give yourself an hour of distraction-free zone 2 cardio and see how it helps with your current stress. Ideally, this would be done outside as well. Just resist the urge to put on a podcast or listen to music. Instead, stay with your thoughts and see where your mind takes you.
The impact of exercise on brain chemicals rivals that of pharmaceuticals, so much so that it’s often shown to be more beneficial at treating depression and anxiety than drugs (and without any of the negative side effects). Exercise helps balance brain chemistry and improves your mood. Exercise is as essential to mental health as it is to physical health and is something that should be implemented daily. Just like your body requires the proper nutrients it needs to survive and thrive, your brain also requires proper chemicals in the right amounts throughout the day to thrive and survive. Exercise plays a key role in making that happen.
As humans, we are social creatures and need interaction with other humans (even you introverts). But we don’t just need any interaction, we need positive interaction. It’s not often we get told “Good job!” or “I’m so glad you’re here” throughout our regular days. When was the last time someone smiled at you and gave you a high five for something you did? When we’re dealing with stress, feeling like we’re not alone can be just the boost we need to keep going. Feeling known and cared for offers opportunities to openly express how you are feeling and get the help and support you need. Unfortunately, often we’ll want to pull away from the very thing we really need (positive community, self-improvement, good brain chemicals) when we’re stressed in order to have more resources for another pursuit or just because we’re depressed and want to retract. If you’re stressed, lean into other people, be vulnerable, and be honest about what you’re dealing with.
John J. Ratey
Stress can be brought on by a variety of causes, some within our control and some from outside of it. Exercise is a good reminder that we are resilient. Our bodies are made to adapt to the stresses they are exposed to. Training is a microcosm of life. When we expose ourselves to the stress of training, it is uncomfortable at the moment but that discomfort fades away, we adapt, we improve, and we are a better person for it afterward. This is the reason we train at all. If it was just discomfort without any benefits, we wouldn’t do it. Instead, we lean into the process knowing that the pain isn’t forever and that ultimately, our goals of improvement lay on the other side of that discomfort. When dealing with life’s stresses, we can lean into that knowledge and experience to remind ourselves that we are resilient and can do difficult things.
Whether in our daily workouts or through a specific event, physical challenges can help us deal with whatever may be going on in our lives and not only get through them but grow from them as well. By allowing ourselves the space to be present and process through what we’re dealing with, by creating positive chemical effects in our brain from both exercise and community, and by reminding ourselves of our resilience, we are able to not only survive but thrive. Go thrive.