As athletes, we tend to focus primarily on physical stress – the way that our daily lives and our training affects our bodies. Unfortunately, the tendency is to largely ignore the mental aspect of this equation.
In reality, mental stress can have a huge impact on your health and physical performance. Short bursts of the so-called “stress hormone” cortisol are a natural part of your body’s fight-or-flight response and are intended to suppress certain biological systems that are not absolutely essential in an emergency situation. While this changes everything from your immune system to your reproductive system, the impact of real interest to athletes is what cortisol does to body composition. Just in case you’re going to need it down the road, cortisol tells your brain that it’s time to start creating – and holding on to abdominal fat. At the same time, cortisol triggers a state of catabolism which causes your body to breakdown muscle for fuel. While this happens on a small, nearly undetectable scale nearly every day, when cortisol levels are chronically high – as can happen through extended physical and/or emotional stress – body composition and athletic performance can be severely affected.
Of course, there are tons of different techniques to manage stress out there. A recent study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology looked specifically at something called “dispositional mindfulness” – the ability to be aware of your experiences in an accepting and nonjudgemental way.
The Way You See It
Specifically, the researchers were curious as to why two people can experience the same level of self-rated mental stress and yet have such varying physiological responses to it. For four mornings, the group of 43 female subjects were asked to describe their levels of perceived stress, anxiety and negative feelings. The researchers also asked the women if they were able to accept the negativity without judgement. Perhaps most interestingly, the researchers also monitored the subjects’ cortisol levels within the 45 minutes after waking up.
Once the data was compiled and analyzed, it became clear that the women who were more articulate about their thoughts and emotions had lower cortisol levels then those who had difficulty expressing and accepting their internal experiences.
Of course, this is just a preliminary study – limited by the use of self-reporting and small sample size – but it still proves an interesting point: The key to managing stress is not avoiding negative thoughts altogether. Instead, we have to learn to process these emotions in a healthful way.
A related study out of Brown University also found that dispositional mindfulness can improve your overall health, even reducing markers of cardiovascular disease.
How To Do It
Unfortunately, this is not a skill that comes easily to everyone. Many people find it difficult to simply experience negative thoughts or emotions, rather than fighting them. With practice, though, this habit can be changed through meditation and mindful exercise. Apart of these disciplines, however, there haven’t been a lot of options for people wanting to improve their dispositional mindfulness.
Interestingly, a study published in Mental Health and Physical Activity compared the impact of both relaxation training and aerobic exercise on the mindfulness of 149 men over 12 weeks. Surprisingly, the relaxation group saw no improvements in dispositional mindfulness. The aerobic group, however, did – lending support to the idea of running to clear your head.
Learning to process emotional stress, instead of ignoring or rejecting it, can help to reduce the severity of cortisol spikes and improve your overall health. While there are many ways to do this, sticking to your routine of cardiovascular training could be a big step. Of course, if that isn’t doing it for you, you might try a mindful exercise style like yoga or Pilates.