Does channelling stress, rage or fear help you when you work out?

Stress may not be good for your mental health but it may be aid you in exercise

Am I just chasing a parasympathetic response? Am I a thrill seeker or a post-thrill seeker?. Photograph: iStock

Am I just chasing a parasympathetic response? Am I a thrill seeker or a post-thrill seeker?. Photograph: iStock

 
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When I was in school, I was not particularly athletic. And yet, I still wanted to find a sport that was right for me, so I got into rock climbing. I wasn’t good at that, but I loved the feeling it gave me. Climbing seemed to centre me. On Friday I’d be a distracted mess of hormones and teen angst. On Sunday, I would dangle 80ft off the ground, scared out of my gourd, and by Monday schoolwork just seemed easier.

How did something so terrifying make the world feel less chaotic and stressful?

There is no doubt that exercise is good for your heart and your mental health. Or that calming activities, such as yoga or tai chi, can help you feel refreshed and recharged. But what about less calm activities?

Is parkour jumping from a rooftop or slamming a tennis ball across the court good for the mind?

Traditional exercise psychologists might say no, because anything that spikes your stress hormones, be it through fear or aggression, is not good for mental health. Small studies have bolstered this belief; one suggested that racquetball’s “competitive nature” is less relaxing than weight or circuit training, while another found that adding stress to a biking workout hampers immune function. And certainly this Olympic year was a lesson in the dangers of over-stressing elite athletes on and off the field.

It might seem strange that the best way for me to deal with stress is to basically flood my brain with it

But this doesn’t mean that emotions, such as stress or aggression, have no place in exercise.

Almost any passionate athlete will tell you their sport is as much a mental health aide as a physical one. You’ve got to clear your head, get right in the brain, blow off some steam. For some of us, those seemingly negative emotions during exercise are the whole reason to work out.

It might seem strange that the best way for me to deal with stress is to basically flood my brain with it, but without things like climbing or river kayaking, I don’t think I could have gotten through these last 17 months.

Adrenaline sports have also long been popular with veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. One creative group of German scientists even experimented with rock climbing as a form of therapy for depression. The results were moderately good, but just the fact the scientists chose rock climbing suggests some emotional benefit for fear.

Strange as it may sound, fear can be deeply therapeutic.

Omer Mei Dan, a US-based orthopaedic surgeon, researcher and former professional BASE jumper, and Erik Monasterio, a forensic psychologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand and lifelong mountaineer, have tried for years to understand what role the personalities of elite extreme athletes play in choosing to risk their lives and then process those experiences. They have repeatedly found that people who climb up or jump off rocks for a living score high in their need to seek out new things and “pathologically” low in their concerns about getting hurt.

“They need to be pushing themselves, working a really hard rock route, windsurfing, trying to do some new trick,” Dr Monasterio said. He and Dr Mei Dan have even suggested that these personality traits confer some form of resistance to psychological trauma.

For some, they said, it might be that experiencing fear and stress while flying off a halfpipe with your skateboard or jumping from a plane trains your brain to deal with these emotions in other parts of your life.

Psychologists once saw the human psyche as a pipe or hose that occasionally gets backed up with emotion, and that people needed to release pressure to stay healthy. “Catharsis theory,” as it was known, said that if you’re angry, you should go outside and hammer on some nails.

So what is it about negative emotions that help us occasionally clear our minds?

This notion has not held up well, partly because researchers have found when angry people blow off steam hammering nails, they often come back just as angry (or angrier) than before. And yet, catharsis is real; it’s a good cry at a sad movie or even a night eating the spiciest tacos you can handle. Crying especially can help us process emotions and release anxiety, said Lauren M Bylsma, an emotions expert at the University of Pittsburgh. And this is why athletes might feel good after a competitive game or a scary ski run.

“When you have a high level of emotion and then you have that release, it can have that cathartic-like experience and you kind of feel that release of tension,” she said. “I could see that being applied not just to crying or sadness, but also fear.”

So what is it about negative emotions that help us occasionally clear our minds?

“You can’t neatly divide emotions into positive or negative,” said Abigail Marsh, an associate psychology professor and the author of The Fear Factor: How one emotion connects altruists, psychopaths, and everyone in between. “Anger, for some people, is described as feeling negative. But other people describe it as feeling positive.”

Nowhere is this more obvious than in competitive youth sports, which Dr Marsh called a “formalised, culturally acceptable form of aggression”. Parents might put unruly kids into football, karate or wrestling in the hopes that it somehow levels them out. But does it?

Many studies over the years have found that young people, often men, who participate in aggressive sports tend to approve of violence, and even resort to it more often than people in other sports or non-athletes. But Mitch Abrams, a sports psychologist and an expert in anger management in athletics, said this paints with too broad a stroke.

For some people, he said, engaging one’s aggressive feelings in a sport may help them to manage their feelings. He even occasionally prescribes aggressive activities like martial arts as a way to confront trauma. But he is also careful not to prescribe it to people with rage issues, saying that there is a level of maturity needed to harness aggression. “There’s a risk,” he said. “If you feel better after striking something, you might be more likely to strike something again in the future.”

The most important thread that ties intense emotions to exercise might be less psychology and more biology. Both fear and aggression trigger the sympathetic nervous system – the so-called fight or flight response.

In doing so, they can then trigger the parasympathetic nervous system which is loosely called “rest and digest.” Sympathetic responses are defined by high cortisol, high blood pressure and heart rates, sweat and dilated pupils. Conversely, the parasympathetic reactions trigger low blood pressure and heart rates, increased metabolism and, importantly, a flushing of cortisol from the system. It’s the deep, almost spiritual calm that comes after the storm.

Dr Monasterio said it took him a few years climbing in his teens to recognise this. “At the time I didn’t realise what was hooking me in – that it’s this calmness that followed extreme exercise.”

Parasympathetic responses are tough to just turn on, though some say breathing exercises and meditation can trigger them. But the simplest way to get that calm is to engage a fight or flight response first. Alejandro Lucas Mulas, a researcher at the European University of Madrid, who has studied the parasympathetic system in sports, has found that feeling after an intense workout can last for hours, making you calmer, happier and less likely to snap or become stressed.

I’ve recently discovered the pleasure of working out on a boxing dummy (with an especially punchable face), which gives me a similar release to climbing, but can be done closer to home. Am I just chasing a parasympathetic response? Am I a thrill seeker or a post-thrill seeker? In the end, it’s not clear that science has one clear answer yet.

Certainly, when I’m frightened on a rock somewhere, I’m not having much fun in the moment, but rather just trying to desperately scrabble to safety. It’s only afterward, tired and a little beaten up, looking over the mountains at the setting sun, that I really enjoy rock climbing. And I can walk down the trail, bone-weary and smiling, relaxed and ready for the week ahead. – New York Times

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