By Christopher Cudworth
In a previous post, we chronicled the strange ways stress enters and leaves your life, comparing it to traveling the Yellow Brick Road in Oz.
See, life can be strange, and there is no stranger world than Oz, it would seem. Except your own.
But let’s talk now about the practical advantages of reducing stress in your life, and how to achieve a better balance in mental health.
These approaches are not clinically proven or medically vetted. But they are based on common sense experience, which is more important than knowing if you’re going to reduce your heart rate by 4.6 beats per minute if you reduce the stress in your life.
#1. Use your running and riding to organize your life.
Reducing stress is primarily about reducing the number of decisions you have to make each day. Decisions cause us stress because they require choices that are not always easy to distinguish, much less select. The best method of reducing stress is therefore focused on eliminating unnecessary decisions and cutting down on the “mess” around you so that you can concentrate on the things that are really important. It all starts with good choices about organization.
Here’s the fun part. Organizing your running and riding stuff can actually be a rewarding activity! With all that high-tech gear in your possession, including shoes, kits, running shorts and tops, Garmin tech and smartphones, getting ready to run or ride is like playing with toys.
As with play, you can learn a lot about your needs and your brain by organizing your “fun” stuff into a system that supports your training and racing. Set up a system of drawers or storage bins to keep your gear organized, and take pride in your little project. Then when you’ve learned what works, such as setting out equipment the night before a race, you can transfer your newfound skills to your everyday life, setting out clothes and suits so that you are not running around (pun intended) frantically each morning trying to get ready for work. You can go out for a run or ride, come back and shower, and have your work clothes ready to go when you’re done. Instantly your life is less stressful.
2. Set up an actual training schedule
It may sound surprising, but very few people actually map out what they’re going to do each week in training. That’s basically what coaches do for athletes. What can we learn from that? Well, having a plan reduces stress because you have a commitment in your mind and your decisions are made for you in advance. You’re not walking out the door going “What should I do today?” And you’re not in the middle of a workout wondering, “Gee, should I be doing this?” Forethought works wonders in reducing stress.
3. Use running and riding to balance your time
If you made a little chart of the actual time you spend doing activities such as working, running, riding, eating and…crapping (cause you have to) it might surprise you to see the balance, or lack of it, going on in your life. Making that little chart on a scale of hours can illustrate how much time you’re using for activities in your life.
For one thing, you’ll get a snapshot of your workout hours and that can do one of several things. First, it can help you be motivated and give yourself a slap on the back for getting out there to do it.
Or, it can make you realize you’re pushing it a bit too much and help you temper your obsession. It’s important to realize that some people actually increase the stress in their lives by overcommitting in one area or another. We tend to do this in the pleasure areas, or the areas where we escape reality, including the Internet.
So if you’re spending 6 hours a week sitting on the toilet moving your bowels while reading back issues of Runner’s World or scrolling stories on Facebook with your smartphone, you might want to reduce that habit along with the amount of fiber you eat.
You should also realize that half the stuff you read on the Internet really is crap. So there’s that too. Life has strange parallels.
And beware: stress can come from strange sources, even relaxing too much. That’s one of the tarsnakes of stress management. Too much of a good thing can be stressful too.
So draw up a picture of how you’re living your life. With that picture in mind, you can better manage your activities and reduce the stress if you happen to need to miss a workout, or cut one short. There’s always tomorrow you know.
4. Use running and riding to work off anxiety, depression or other nasties
You’ll notice that we didn’t actually get to the workouts until well into this list. That’s because you aren’t going to reduce stress and be productive if you’re constantly worried about other crap in your life that confuses your mind and occupies your thoughts when you should be focused on the workout at hand. So, getting your philosophical and organization crap together comes first.
But once you’re out there, concentrate fully on what you’re doing. You deserve it, you see. Exercising is like a giant Brain Cleanser, an Ajax for the soul. Raising the heart rate, breathing profusely, sweating a bunch and staying regular in your bowels are all products of good workouts. So don’t half-court your commitment. This “working out” routine is a good thing you’re doing for yourself, and for others.
Your mental and physical health can be definitively improved through consistent, quality exercise. The mounds of research on that subject are too voluminous to even quote here. Just trust your instincts for now, and get on the Internet to find out the clinical reasons later.
Here’s the rub: Running and riding can reduce anxiety and stress by breaking you out of ruminative thought patterns. You can also break depressive thought patterns by getting out of the environments that affirm your depressive state.
Be cognitive: It obviously helps to have someone to talk to (at times) while you run and ride. Sure, it may require a patient partner, someone willing to talk and listen. That’s called cognitive therapy. It definitely reduces stress by getting thoughts out of your head and into the light.
Workouts also function as a chemical benefit in your body, releasing crucial endorphins that serve to lift your mood and give you hope.
5. Let running and riding drive your creative instincts
Think about it: Stress is the opposite of creativity. When you’re stressed the last thing you want to think about is new ideas or even solutions to the problems you have. You just want the stress to go away, so you can think.
Well, that’s pretty dysfunctional. So running and riding are a great way to get away from the near term outlook. The stuff right in front of your face on the kitchen counter; stacks of bills, that parking ticket you keep forgetting to pay, and the report card from your one child with a D in Home Ec (how do you even do that?) can all take over your brain.
Good news: creative solutions to these problems exist. You can break them down into simple categories, for one thing. Bills first. Parking ticket next. Then you can get to the whole D in Home Ec Thing.
Use your time on the road to break down your issues and establish priorities.
Here’s a hint: you should also focus on coming up with at least one creative thought per run or ride. Getting to that point either seems to happen right off the bat, when you’re out the door and into the ride or run. Or else it takes a while, and you’re coming in a little tired when you realize things are not so bad as they seem. You can deal with it. The things you were stressing about are not going to kill you this minute.
When you get home, write down some of the things you thought about out there. Let your brain work it out on paper. It really does help. And by the way, that also helps at 2:00 in the morning when you’re awake and worried and can’t get back to sleep. Write it all down. It gives you a sense of control and authorship.
Managing stress is all about controlling the influences in your life.
Give yourself the space and time to solve problems, reduce clutter, get organized, work up a sweat, create better thoughts, let bad feelings go, find better tolerance and come home ready to act. All those things will help you reduce stress in your life.
And it’s worth it.