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Emotions, Thoughts, and Your Physical Performance: The Powerful Interconnections

We typically focus on the physical body when we're discussing fitness and athletic performance. We address power and strength; cardiovascular efficiency and oxygen uptake; range of motion, balance, and flexibility. Rightfully so: these are all important factors.

However, we tend to overlook the significant role emotions and thoughts play in this realm. Many of us don’t consider that our mind, body, and feelings are all deeply intertwined. We did touch on this in our recent post about somatic practices, and here we'll dive in a little more.

Let’s consider some ways mental and emotional wellness can impact physical performance.

Address Stress

The first step to solving any problem is to first recognize what the problem is. Stress is a common, but it also becomes so constant and pervasive we can tend to think of it as just how life is. High levels of stress becomes normalized. But just because we’re used to it doesn’t mean it’s not taking a toll. Stress is mentally and emotionally exhausting!

Also, it doesn’t have to be this way. Consider the big stressors in your life and how they impact you mentally and emotionally. Do they bring up anger? Do they send your thoughts spiraling into catastrophic thinking? Are you afraid you won’t be able to meet expectations–your own or others’? Are your To Do lists, family demands, or job testing your patience?

These are all common experiences, but they don’t have to be so difficult or taxing. You do have some control over how you react to and process stress. It’s challenging, however, to take control or make changes to your reactions when you’re in the middle of a stressful experience.

The key is to develop some strategies before you feel overwhelmed. Then, practice those strategies consistently–because change takes time.

Another consideration when addressing stress is looking at ways you can reduce it or at least have designated periods of rest and rejuvenation. Learning how to set boundaries and when enough is truly enough is very important. You can say, No. You can set priorities and let a few things go. You do not have to do it all.

Acknowledge Big Life Events and Their Long-Term Impact

We’ve all heard that big life events like moving, death of a loved one, health issues, divorce take a huge toll on our mental and emotional well being. But even with that knowledge, we can tend to underestimate what that really means. We also typically underestimate how long it takes to process these occurrences.

If you are experiencing a big life event, first off, give yourself some grace around the fact that you’re going through something really difficult. Processing life upheavals, even in circumstances when they’re ultimately for the best, takes a lot of energy.

The other thing about big life events is that oftentimes, you have little control over how much of an impact they have and how long that impact will last.

What you can do is be mindful of how you’re being affected and work with and through whatever is going on. Said another way, powering through and ignoring the situation is not known to be a great approach.

This is also a critical time to make sure you’re getting the hydration, nourishment, and sleep that you need. These can all have a profound impact on your feelings and ability to cope with challenges. Tending to these basics of wellness is important at any time, but especially when you're dealing with big changes.

It’s also likely not the best time to pile on the stress of working out harder or shooting for your best athletic performances. Instead, focus on maintaining health and wellness, moving in ways that feel good but not exhausting. Use workouts as a time to process, heal, uplift your energy, and be in a healthy community. It’s an excellent time to learn how to listen to your body and comply with what feels best.

Consider Your Feelings about and Mental Approach to Being Athletic

Working out and engaging in athletic performances can rile up all sorts of thoughts and feelings about yourself.

Sports and moving our body with purpose do have so many great benefits, but it’s also prime time for negative rabbit holes: body comparison, questioning one’s abilities, overcoming challenges of self-confidence, being self-critical about abilities and strength–the list goes on.

Here’s the great news: you can turn that all around. You do ultimately have control over your thoughts, how you perceive yourself, and how you talk to yourself.

It’s far easier said than done, of course, but really think about why you feel the way you feel. If you tend to get down on yourself, think about where those thoughts came from and why you’re so convinced that they’re true. Would you say this to a friend? If not, then stop saying it to yourself. Take an outside view of yourself and talk to yourself like a good friend would, or just really absorb the nice things your friends actually already say.

Could you reframe your thoughts and feelings into something more positive? Perhaps focus on what you do right and where you are strong instead of hammering on the things you wish you were better at.

It’s true that thoughts alone aren’t going to, say, make you a faster runner or a better soccer player or better at golf, but they can help. Visualization, for starters, is really effective. It won’t ensure that you’ll reach your goal, but it’ll help a lot more than doubt and self-berating.

It’s also fair to recognize when things do actually make you feel bad. Sometimes we go through bad patches where we don’t feel great about ourselves and maybe didn’t do our best. Feel it, learn what you can from whatever mistakes you may have made, and then move on. Keep up with the habits that ultimately keep you healthy and well because this too shall pass.

The Complex Interconnectedness of It All

Your thoughts, feelings, and physical self are undeniably connected, and they work together in sometimes surprising ways. It’s not always obvious or easy to understand how one impacts the other, but awareness can begin to shed some light on the situation.

You may recognize, for instance, that going through the process of grief is making you too exhausted to push yourself in your athletic pursuits, but that getting out on a nice run helps you process your feelings and lift you out of a gloomy haze.

You may feel like you’re too overwhelmed with stress to get in your workout today only to remember that getting to your workout is one way you relieve that stress and reinvigorate yourself. But on other days, that rejuvenating feeling just isn’t happening and the best answer is to do some stretching and deep breathing and have a moment to rest.

When you start to pay attention to thoughts of self-doubt or self-critique, you may begin to actually feel how physically draining they are and how they make you automatically tense your jaw, neck, and shoulders. And ultimately, you fully realize how unhelpful and unnecessary that all is.

Maybe you work to replace those habitual thoughts and feelings with ones that are more constructive and helpful. You begin to work with these intertwining elements of mind, body, emotion to harness their great potential when they’re working optimally together, in harmony.

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