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Step Back from Crisis : The Cognitive and Emotional Benefits of Physical Exercise

Written by Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, BCCO

The Cognitive and Emotional Benefits of Physical ExerciseExtreme Mental and Emotional Symptoms
Depression, mood instability, compulsions, constant anxiety, and other mental and emotional symptoms are horribly uncomfortable. Swirling, spiraling, interconnected, intrusive, obsessive thoughts of sadness, anger, fear, and even impending death and disaster can make life seem hopeless and not worth living.

The Body Reacts
A part of the problem that may go unnoticed in the mental chaos is the overwhelming physical tension generated by thoughts and emotions that have gone astray. Shoulders tense, stomachs churn, chests tighten, and hands tremble. Indeed, mental and emotional tension can manifest in the inability to breathe correctly, nausea and vomiting, migraine headaches, body aches and pains, and even a sensation of paralysis. All of these physical symptoms vastly accentuate the very mental distress that is causing them. The result can be panic attacks.

It is a cycle, isn’t it? Uncomfortable thoughts and emotions torment the body which, in turn, reacts to exacerbate the symptoms of the mind under stress.

Stop. Break the Cycle.
Nothing is farther from the mind of someone who is trapped in their thoughts, panicky or contemplating suicide than swimming or going for a walk. When I suggest exercise, my Clients look at me as if I don’t “get it” – Oh my gosh, this woman is crazy. I am having a nervous breakdown, and she wants me to go swimming!!! Yes, I do. Simple physical activity can literally save a life when my Clients are willing to try.

Focus the Mind, Calm the Body… and Vice Versa
Here are some wonderful exercises to focus the mind and calm the body:

  • Walking at a steady rate, swinging the arms, counting the number of steps per inhale and per exhale
  • Swimming laps rhythmically and methodically
  • Yoga with a DVD or in a class, paying attention to the linkage of pose, or asana, to the breath
  • Tai Chi, concentrating on the flow of one movement to the next

These exercises require that you focus on something other than your current turmoil. They stretch the limbs, allowing tension to flow away. They tire the muscles, making relaxation and sleep more accessible. You almost have to slow and steady your breathing in order to do them. Mostly, they are the opposite of what you are doing during an emotional crisis.

Take a break from distress. Take a half-hour or an hour to re-group. Don’t refuse to do it until you have tried. Look at all the people who exercise. It’s for a reason. Find out for yourself what they gain from steady and regulated physical effort.

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