Recovery Training: The Key to Physical Toughness (Part 2) - Handling Emotional Stress

Excerpts below taken from Toughness Training for Life, James E. Loehr, Ed.D. (The Penguin Group, New York: 1993) 70-81.

Recovery Training: Strategies for Handling Emotional Stress

Since recovery plays such a central role in toughening/strengthening process, it is as important to understand the signals of recovery as to understand the signals of overtraining and undertraining.

The most common sign of physical recovery is the feeling of bodily relief.  If you've been standing or walking for a long time, sitting down brings immediate muscular relief.  In contrast, if you've been sitting on an airplane or behind a desk for hours, getting up and moving around will also bring muscular relief.  This example shows that physical relief can occur when levels of physical activity either increase or decrease, but the most common situation is for physical relief to come from reduced physical activity.

The first critical step in recovery training is to learn to recognize when physical recovery is occurring and how it feels.  Tuning into decreasing muscle tension in your hands or neck, feeling the relaxation of your chest muscles as you breathe more deeply, is listening to the language of physical recovery.

The Most Common Signs of Physical Recovery

  • Feelings of bodily relief (reduced feelings of hunger, thirst, sleepiness, tension, and so forth)
  • Decreasing heart rate (reduced electrocardiographic, or EKG activity)
  • Decreasing breath rate (decreased respiratory activity)
  • Decreasing blood pressure
  • Decreasing muscle tension (reduced electromyographic or EMG activity)
  • Decreasing blood cortisone (the primary stress hormone)
  • Decreasing oxygen consumption
  • Decreasing electrical brain waves (reduced electroencephalograohic or EEG activity - from beta to alpha, theta or delta frequencies)
  • Increasing electrical skin resistance, or ESR (As relaxation increases, the rate of perspiration decreases, causing the skin resistance to increase and "skin talk" to decrease.)

Emotional Recovery
Emotional stress takes many forms, from gut-wrenching pain to subtle, nondescript feelings of anxiety, pressure, and uneasiness.  The most common sign of emotional recovery is the feeling that. at least for the moment, there is a break in the emotional storm.

Relief from fear, guilt, anger, depression, or doubt signals movement toward recovery.  Relief means a lifted spirit, a happier, healthier, more positive outlook and attitude.  The shift from negative to positive feelings signals the onset of recovery waves that may be brief and weak or prolonged and powerful.  Whether they are weak or powerful, the important issue is that the emotional shift represents movement away from stress and toward recovery.

Once basic physiological needs for food, water and rest have been met,recovery from emotional needs associated with physical safety and psychological security have the greatest urgency and power.

Most anxiety and pressure in people's lives stem from perceived threats associated with psychological security issues.  Relief from needs for love, self-esteem, and personal fulfillment are secondary emotional needs that become increasingly more important and pressing as the safety and security needs are met.  Within that context, feelings of increased love, and self-esteem usually signal powerful emotional recovery.

The Most Common Signs of Emotional Recovery

  • A feeling of emotional relief
  • Increasing positive feelings - fun, joy, humor, happiness
  • Decreasing negative feelings of anger, frustration and bitterness
  • Increasing feelings of safety and security
  • Decreasing feelings of depression, sadness, guilt, or grief
  • Decreasing feelings of pressure
  • Increasing feelings of being loved
  • Increasing feelings of self-esteem
  • Increasing feelings of personal fulfillment

Poor emotional recovery can impact the athletic performance of many athletes.  When you see an athlete start of strong and finish poorly, it is likely that he or she failed because of starting the match inadequately recovered from either physical OR psychological stress.  The athlete may have been seriously overtrained or undertrained, but he or she may also have been under some personal emotional stress that prevented adequate rest or nutrition; or the athlete may have entered the competition too excited to realize that he or she was close to dehydration or inadequately fed for physical demands of the athletic performance required.  Notice, it is not really too much stress that derails the athlete, but it is too little recovery.

Recovery Strategies for Emotional (Inside-Out) Stress
1. Make sure that basic physiological needs for food, water, and sleep are adequately or abundantly met.
2. If possible, temporarily remove yourself from all stressors - take a break.  Ideally your break to recover from a heavy emotional hit will be a long vacation, or at least a week or a weekend away.  Even an overnight stay can be useful.  At the very least, get out of the house, take a long, leisurely walk in nature or go to a movie that will trigger strong positive emotions.
3. Get involved in some kind of mild to moderate, non-competitive, active rest, physical exercise like yoga, dance, stretching, fishing, golf, walking, or meditative Qigong.
4. Express your emotions verbally.  Be careful, however, not to express negative emotion in a performance situation.  Expressing negative feelings and emotions during competition or within the work setting usually undermines performance.
5. Express your emotions in writing.  Getting painful feelings down on paper often provides temporary emotional recovery - and since it can be done in private, this outlet can be risk-free.
6. Get involved in mental or physical activities that decrease brain activity.  Common examples are passive rest activities like meditation, deep breathing, listening to music and active rest activities like yoga, walking, tai-chi, easy biking.
7. Use humor and laughter to break cycles of excessive emotional stress.  Humorous books, movies, tv shows or people who make you laugh have great value.  Laughter quickly reduces the flow of emotional stress hormones.  In terms of recovery, laughter is serious business.
8. Practice gratitude.  The practice of recalling or recording the things in our lives we are most grateful for helps us to turn our attention toward the good things in our lives that remain constant even during times of emotional stress.  This can be as simple and effortless as silently reciting a few things we are grateful for in our lives or if you really want to give it an effort, try writing a letter of gratitude to a friend or family member, or taking this person our for coffee or lunch and presenting the letter in person.  This act will release endorphins and oxytocin and will go a long way to reducing emotional stress.

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