Let’s Get Physical: Stressing Your Body to De-Stress Your Mind

Legs of person running along grassy track with dogsIf there was an effective way to insulate yourself from the stressors of life, would you consider it? Activities such as meditation and yoga are oft-cited methods for achieving stress relief, and for good reason. But what if that isn’t your thing? Fret not. Fostering an improved mind-body connection can occur within any physical activity, and that connection is a necessary component of learning to effectively ground yourself during stressful times.

I view the context in which any kind of physical activity takes place—the weight room, home gym, boxing ring, hiking trail—as a place where a type of stress testing occurs. This environment is the laboratory, and we are the scientists conducting experiments, controlling variables such as frequency, type, and intensity of effort. At one level, we gather fact-based data about ourselves: distance covered, weight lifted, repetitions performed. But at a deeper level, we also gather subjective data about ourselves concerning how well we rise to being challenged and, perhaps most importantly, how resistant or open we are to experiencing discomfort.

One of the first things I do when working with individuals after identifying their perceived stressors is assess for an open or closed stance to their current reality. This is an acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) concept, which is employed with the goal of increasing psychological flexibility or the ability to “contact the present moment fully as a conscious human being and to change or persist in behavior when doing so serves valued ends.” Avoidance or unwillingness to experience the discomfort or pain of life generally leads to greater distress, in turn lowering psychological flexibility. Think of an extremely conflict-avoidant person who often feels unheard and depressed, or a person who uses drugs to escape reality, both of whom ultimately only create more strife in their lives.

From this perspective, learning to open up to discomfort, rather than trying to avoid or alter it in some way, produces more flexibility in your approach to managing stress. At this point, you may be thinking that increasing your psychological flexibility sounds beneficial, sure, but what does that have to do with exercise? Exercise is a vehicle for practicing psychological flexibility, and most of us learn best by doing. Over time, if an individual remains consistent with exercise, we usually see a progression from the baseline. Finding and pushing the boundaries of both mental and physical discomfort is a key concept in improving at any sport or physical activity, and likewise for overcoming difficult life circumstances.

This willingness to be challenged—to temporarily be with unpleasant thoughts or bodily sensations we experience both within and outside the context of exercise—is akin to receiving an immunization that protects from stressors. Much like a vaccine, exercise artificially introduces manageable amounts of stress to the mind and body in a controlled manner. The “antibodies” are the willingness and acceptance to be with the present moment as it is, which in turn safeguards us not only from getting overwhelmed by the physical activity, but from getting lost in the mental experience of the perceived dilemma.

This willingness to be challenged—to temporarily be with unpleasant thoughts or bodily sensations we experience both within and outside the context of exercise—is akin to receiving an immunization that protects from stressors. Much like a vaccine, exercise artificially introduces manageable amounts of stress to the mind and body in a controlled manner.

The mental experience of stress—and getting hooked by all the thoughts, judgments, and evaluations you have about the source of stress—is perhaps the most significant barrier of all. We usually spend too much time and energy in this space of thinking, worrying, or over-analyzing, losing sight of our ability to take mindful action. That’s not a problem with exercise. Stress is induced and physical action is taken. That’s the point of exercise, after all. But it’s also a reminder that a different kind of relationship to discomfort and sacrifice can exist; one that reminds us that making moment-to-moment choices mindfully and deliberately is powerful and meaningful.

The irony here is that one of the best ways to alleviate stress is to create more of it in a controlled and purposeful way. Borrowing a phrase from the yogi circles, seek to find “the ease in the effort” in your physical activity of interest. Like a runner who’s instructed not to run with clenched fists, or a bodybuilder being reminded to breathe with each repetition, we can more effectively move through the challenging parts of life by learning to relax and be present while under pressure.

If you don’t already incorporate exercise into your life, I gently and respectfully challenge you to consider doing so as a means of cultivating your psychological flexibility. Of course, exercise alone is no cure-all. Rather, it is yet another tool to add to your toolbox, one that is unique in its ability to reconnect your body and mind. And please remember, whether you are physically active or not: if you are struggling to manage stress in an effective way, consider reaching out to a therapist for additional support.


Hayes, S. (n.d.). The Six Core Processes of ACT. Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. Retrieved from https://contextualscience.org/the_six_core_processes_of_act

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  • Elsie

    April 20th, 2017 at 2:32 PM

    Seriously there are days when I know that the only way I will ever shut down the stress and the mania that I am feeling is to get out and get a good sweaty workout. Go for a long run or walk, hit the gym, whatever it is I just make it completely mindless but something pretty labor intensive so I am really having to work for it.

    Nothing like a little sweat equity to calm the soul at times.

    I know there are naysayers, but believe me, I was once where you are and after a few times, that’s all it takes to know that this really works.

  • Melissa Stringer, LMHC, NCC, DCC

    April 20th, 2017 at 4:31 PM

    That’s wonderful to hear you find exercise such an effective way to release stress. And I agree – it’s the doing piece that can help us become less connected to our thoughts/perceptions and become more grounded. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Elsie

    April 21st, 2017 at 8:06 AM

    No problem! If it helps someone else the way that it helped me then I am glad that I could share a little piece of that!

  • reese

    April 24th, 2017 at 2:08 PM

    So exercise is good and I think that we all know that but there are those who then become obsessed with it too, and to always make it out to be a good thing is simply untrue. This is a thing that can be ta ken to the extreme just like anything else. I agree that working out can make a huge difference overall in both how you feel mentally and physically but there can be a downside to it too. Don’t use it just to mask something else that is going on or to run away from those things. Use it as a supplement to other forms of self care that you are trying, and I think that you will notice a huge difference if you can achieve just that right balance.

  • Melissa Stringer, LMHC, NCC, DCC

    April 25th, 2017 at 7:27 AM

    Well said, and what a valuable distinction you’ve made between that of excess and balance. Becoming overly reliant on one method of relieving stress many times results in extreme behaviors. Or like you mentioned, using a particular behavior to “run away” from something else is generally not a workable, long-term solution. While balance is certainly ideal, I think balance looks a bit different from person to person. For example, the amount of physical activity for one individual may be considered too much or too little for the next. Mindfully questioning the intent and function behind any behavior can help bring clarity – like asking yourself, “what’s this behavior in the service of?” To “run away” from something or to live by a value of improving physical/mental health?
    Thank you again for sharing your insight!

  • Anonymous

    May 17th, 2017 at 11:12 AM

    I used to excercise a lot; it made me very depressed, so I don’t anymore.

  • Melissa Stringer, LMHC, NCC, DCC

    June 6th, 2017 at 9:55 PM

    Anonymous – We can certainly all have vastly different perceptions doing the exact same activity. In this case, exercise brings on feelings of sadness for you while some experience a sense of rejuvenation and accomplishment. Perhaps some of the thoughts/feelings attached to exercise, rather than exercise itself, created these feelings of depression? Until this is more deeply explored and understood, it sounds as if you’ve ceased doing something that didn’t seem to be working for you, which is a proactive step. If exercising is something you value as a lifestyle choice, but you are avoiding it because of how you feel when doing it, I’d encourage you to reach out to a therapist for assistance in addressing emotional barriers. If exercise is not something you value, then ceasing the behavior was most likely the choice that works best for you. Thank you for sharing your experience :)

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