Controlling Your Emotions
Posted March 23, 2023 by Matthew Romans
A Total Results exercise session is a physically and mentally stressful event. Because our workouts are so demanding, this is one reason why they are so brief and relatively infrequent. We often talk about the dose-response relationship of exercise as being similar to that of taking medication; we want the minimum dose necessary to elicit the proper adaptive response. If you look at it from another perspective, we are, in a sense, fooling our bodies into believing that we are involved in a life-and-death struggle in performing this workout. This is because the human body wants to maintain homeostasis whenever possible, and needs a very good reason to mobilize precious resources in order to make physical improvements. In reality, we are in a perfectly safe and clinically controlled environment where the variables of exercise frequency, intensity, and duration are carefully monitored and potentially dangerous forces are kept to a minimum. However, to the body, the workout is interpreted as an existential threat, and one can only work at a high level of intensity for so long; 20 minutes is not just something we can get away with, it is a biological necessity.
High intensity exercise can often be accompanied by a wide range of emotions, particularly with inexperienced trainees that are not accustomed to intense weight training or physical discomfort. Clients often exhibit fear, panic, and frustration as they grapple with this new undertaking and work on learning something that is relatively unfamiliar to them. All of this is perfectly normal. The ancient Stoic philosophers never said that you should bury your emotions or pretend that they don't exist. What they teach us are strategies that can be implemented to help us control our emotions so that they don't get the better of us. This certainly can pay dividends in everyday life, but also in an exercise setting. Allowing your emotions to influence you during a workout can lead to form discrepancies that significantly increase the risk of injury. As always, the primary focus of an instructor is client safety.
Reaching momentary muscular failure for the first time can throw you for a mental loop. If you have never experienced this before, it is difficult to prepare for the feeling that comes along with pushing as hard as you can against a movement arm and not seeing it move. In boxing, it has been said that one of the most difficult things to deal with psychologically is to hit the other guy with your best punch and watch it have no effect. This is similar to what happens the initial time you reach muscular failure. You're pushing as hard as you can (even though the musculature is quite feeble at this point) and it's still not moving. Sometimes clients take on an incorrect mentality and confuse the assumed and the real objectives of exercise. The real objective of each exercise is to inroad (fatigue) the musculature as thoroughly and safely as we possibly can, as this is the necessary stimulus that spurs the body into action. However, clients at first will often believe it is about performing as many repetitions with as much weight as possible. This can lead to taking liberties with form and an increased risk of injury, so it should be avoided. As movement bogs down and failure approaches, remind yourself that this is the most effective part of the exercise, and that this is the ultimate goal. It will help you to maintain the correct frame of mind. Grace under pressure can be defined as keeping your composure in times of turmoil.
Fear is a common emotion that we experience, whether it's fear of muscular failure or fear of the accompanying exertional discomfort. Sometimes clients will simply remark that, "It hurts," although in the heat of the moment they usually can't provide more specific information. Once they are out of the machine and in a less stressful place, I ask them if what they experienced was sharp and sudden (usually indicating an injury), or just a dull ache that intensified as the exercise progressed. Nine times out of ten, it's the latter. In most cases fear of something, whether it's a fear of heights, snakes, or crowds, is far worse in our minds than what is true in reality. In the book "How to Think Like a Roman Emperor", author Donald Robertson, who is a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, talks about the concept of emotional habituation. One definition I found online for this notion is, "a psychological learning process wherein there is a decrease in response to a stimulus after being repeatedly exposed to it." After you experience a few times the dull ache of fatigued muscles accompanied by muscular failure, it becomes a lot less scary to deal with. When this happens, fear is far less likely to lead to panic. We want to avoid that fight/flight response that prevents us from being able to process and execute the cues given by the instructor. Repeated exposure to something leaves us far less sensitive to the experience. Remember, it's only exercise, not a true life-and-death event. Simply accept the fact that you will eventually reach the point where the weight will no longer move, and understand that this is physiologically very positive. Do not be frustrated if your time under load is not what you expected it to be. If you have given your very best effort, you have done all that you could.
What are some things you can focus on in order to control your emotions? One strategy is to remain almost detached, as if you are observing your workout from outside your body. This way you are not so emotionally invested in the minutiae of each repetition, but are really looking at it from an intellectual point of view. A sense of inevitability is also helpful. If you say to yourself, "I know this will be difficult, but it's only 20 minutes," that makes it far less mentally stressful. Relish the opportunity to accomplish something challenging and meaningful. Relax your face and jaw; many clients carry a lot of unnecessary tension this way and can prematurely fatigue themselves in this fashion. This can also lead to Val Salva and elevated blood pressure, which are both contraindicated. Breathe freely and continuously throughout each exercise to make things just a little easier. Another point of emphasis is head and neck stability. Not only do we want to protect the neck musculature and guard against exercise-induced headache, but without neck relaxation and stability we cannot effectively inroad any of the other musculature.
People who have difficulty managing their emotions often find themselves more wiped out at the end of a session, due to the toll it takes on the system. We simply want to stimulate physical improvements, not leave you completely spent after a workout. Former Vice Presidential candidate Admiral James Stockdale was able to survive seven years in a Vietnamese POW camp by remaining calm and controlling his emotions; if he had given in to fear and despair he never would have made it. If Admiral Stockdale could do that, you can certainly handle one or two 20 minute workouts per week. Master yourself!