When I was in high school, I wasn’t particularly athletic. I was on the bench on the elementary baseball team and dropped out of freshman basketball after two weeks.
And yet, I still wanted to find a sport that suits me, so I fell in love with mountain climbing. I’m not good at it either, but I love how it makes me feel. Climbing seems to be me centered. On Friday, I’ll be a mess distracted by hormones and teenage tantrums. On Sunday, I’ll hang 80 feet above the ground, scared of my gourd, and on Monday, school seems easier. How can something so terrifying make the world less chaotic and stressful?
There is no doubt that exercise is good for your heart and your mental health. Or gentle activities like yoga or tai chi can help you feel refreshed and recharged. But what about less calm activities? Is jumping parkour from a rooftop or throwing a tennis ball across the court good for the mind?
Traditional exercise psychologists might say no, because anything that increases your stress hormones, be it fear or aggression, is bad for mental health. Small studies have reinforced this belief; one who argues that the “competitive nature” of tennis less relaxing than weight training or circuit training, while another found that adding stress to cycling interfere with immune function. And certainly this Olympic year is a lesson in risk of excessive stress elite athletes on and off the field.
But this doesn’t mean that emotions like stress or aggression have no place in practice. Almost any passionate athlete will tell you their sport supports mental health as much as physical health. You have to have a clear mind, go right to the brain, relax. For some of us, seemingly negative emotions during exercise are reasons to exercise.
Fear is a good life skill.
It seems odd that the best way for me to deal with stress is to basically flood my brain with it, but without things like rock climbing or river kayaking, I don’t think I would be able to. over the past 17 months.
Adrenaline sports have also been around for a long time popular with veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. An innovative team of German scientists even experimented with Mountain climbing as a form of therapy for depression. The results were pretty good, but the scientists’ choice to climb the mountain showed some mental benefits to fear. It may sound strange, but fear can be deeply cured.
Omer Mei Dan, an orthopedic surgeon at Boulder, researcher and former professional BASE athlete, and Erik Monasterio, a forensic psychologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand and athlete lifelong climber, have tried for many years to understand the role of personality elite extreme athlete play in choosing to risk their lives and then process those experiences. They have repeatedly found that people who climb or jump off rocks for a high score have a need to seek new things and worry about being “pathologically” injured.
“They need to push themselves, work on a really tough rocky road, windsurf, try out some new tricks,” says Dr. Monasterio. He and Dr. Mei Dan have even suggested that these personality traits produce some form resistance to psychological trauma.
They say, for some people, being able to experience fear and stress while flying halfway around on a skateboard or jumping from an airplane helps your brain deal with these emotions in other parts of the brain. life.
Release some steam.
Psychologists used to think of the human psyche as a tube or a hose through which emotions sometimes run high and people need to release pressure to stay healthy. The “Catharsis theory,” as it is known, says that if you are angry, you should go out and hammer some nails.
This perception is not good, partly because researchers have found that when angry people blow nail steam, they often turn around. angry too (or angrier) than before. However, catharsis is real; it’s a happy cry from watching a sad movie or even a night out eating the best tacos you can handle. Crying can especially help us process emotions and relieve anxiety, says Lauren M. Bylsma, an emotional expert at the University of Pittsburgh. And this is why athletes can feel good after a competitive match or an intimidating ski run.
“When you have a high emotional level and then you get that release, it can have that catalyst-like experience and you feel that release of stress,” she says. “I can see that applying is not only for crying or sad, but also for fear.”
Sometimes a little aggression can help.
So what about negative emotions that help us clear our minds from time to time?
Abigail Marsh, associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University and author of the book The Fear Factor: How an Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone in between: You cannot divide emotions into positive or negative.” “For some people, anger is described as a negative feeling. But others describe it as feeling positive.”
Nowhere is this more evident than in competitive youth sports, which Dr Marsh calls “a formalized, culturally acceptable form of aggression”. Parents may put unruly kids into soccer, karate, or wrestling in the hope that it will somehow get them through. But it no?
Many studies over the years have found that young people, usually men, participate in active sports. tend to approve of violence, and even use it more often than people in other sports or non-athletes. But Mitch Abrams, a sports psychologist based in Tinton Falls, NJ, and an expert on anger management in athletics, says this paints a stroke too broad.
For some people, he says, engaging in one’s feelings of aggression in a sport can help them control their emotions. He even sometimes designates active activities like martial arts as a way to cope with trauma. But he’s also careful not to prescribe it to people with rage problems, saying it takes a degree of maturity to exploit aggression.
“There is a risk,” he said. “If you feel better after hitting something, you are more likely to hit something again in the future.. “
Rest and digest.
The most important thread linking intense emotions to exercise may be less psychological and more biological. Both fear and aggression activate the sympathetic nervous system – the so-called fight or flight response.
In doing so, they can activate the parasympathetic nervous system known as “rest and digest”. Sympathetic responses are defined by high cortisol, high blood pressure and heart rate, sweating, and dilated pupils. In contrast, parasympathetic responses trigger low blood pressure and heart rate, increase metabolism and, importantly, release of cortisol from the system. It is the deep, almost spiritual calm that emerges after the storm.
Dr. Monasterio said it took him several years of climbing as a teenager to realize this. “At the time, I didn’t realize what was appealing to me – that it was this calm after extreme exercise.”
Parasympathetic responses are difficult to turn on, although some say breathing exercises and meditation can trigger them. But the simplest way to get that calm is to get into a fight or land a plane first. Alejandro Lucia Mulas, a researcher at the European University of Madrid who has studied the parasympathetic system in sports, has found that the sensations after an intense workout can last for hours, causing you’re calmer, happier, and less prone to getting upset or stressed.
I recently discovered the joy of training on a boxing dummy (with a particularly conspicuous face), which gives me the same comfort as rock climbing, but can be done. closer to home. Am I just pursuing a parasympathetic response? Am I a thrill seeker or a thrill seeker? In the end, it’s still not clear that science has a definite answer.
Sure, when I’m scared on a rock somewhere, I’m not having much fun in the moment, but just trying desperately to run to safety. Only then, tired and a little tired, looking over the mountains at sunset, did I really enjoy climbing. And I can walk the trail, tired and smiling, relaxed and ready for the week ahead.