Someone close to me had an emotional, stress driven meltdown recently and I was there for the whole ordeal. Everything came to a head, the world seemed to be smothering her and she was drowning in her emotions, her body image, her family life, her social life, EVERYTHING! We were scheduled to work out together and it was obvious that the most important thing necessary in this situation was a shoulder, and ear and a new point of view. Working out can be a great reliever of stress but sometimes you just have to know when enough is enough. Needless to say, we did NOT work out but had a cathartic conversation and a nice half hour stretching session. On my way home from her house I began to think about the affects of stress on the body and working out. When will a good workout help you get through it and when do you just need to tune out all the stimuli and put on a good movie, soak in the tub or read a good book? When I got home I couldn’t sleep. I found myself feeling for her and her situation and I was starting to stress about the fact that I couldn’t solve her problems. I ended up taking on a kitchen project at 10pm and by 2am I had turned 5lbs of peaches in to preserves and was finally able to sleep.
Stress is a killer. It makes you feel awful. It makes you lose sleep. It makes you sleep too much. It makes you binge eat. It makes you lose your appetite. It makes you lash out at people who are trying to help you. It makes you needy and dependent. It wires you. It exhausts you. It makes you want to re-engage bad habits to drown it out. It makes you gain weight unnecessarily. It makes you lose weight unhealthily. The worst part about it? EVERYONE reacts differently to it.
As a fitness professional I work with people on a daily basis in a one-on-one setting and part of my job is looking at the kind of day they are having and modifying workouts, cues, stimuli and expectations based on their state of mind at the time I see them. There is a fine line between babying someone or enabling them and being supportive of a bad day and helping them work through it. On one hand I want to listen to them and empathize with them to be sure they know I am aware that something is going on. I don’t need to know every last detail of the root of their stress (although most people tell me everything anyway) but I do need to know that something is affecting them and it may affect their workout. I need to take in to account the amount of sleep they have been able to get, or not get. I need to be sure they are still eating so they have energy to use in their workout. I may even want to see if they speak to someone on a regular basis to help with their stress especially if they are going though something overwhelming and life altering. Once I have these answers I am much better equipped to decide if a good intense workout is just what they need to focus and hit the reset button on themselves or if it’s time to slow down and, God forbid, take a day off.
My general rule of thumb is that if a client is about to or is in the midst of a meltdown, it’s time to stop. It’s time to get them on a stretching table or just slow down and breathe so as not to panic. Tears, screaming and pacing can escalate in to heightened blood pressure and bursts of energy that can lead to injuries which is the last thing a person under a lot of stress needs. Catharsis is inevitable in this situation and letting all of that angry energy out is good but they need to slow down and allow themselves to let go and focus on things in a way that is more productive to finding a solution. By breathing and stretching I have found that people are better able to focus on the components they can control and they can prioritize their actions to come to better solutions. If a meltdown is not on the horizon this is the time to turn what, in meltdown mode, is a tearful and verbal catharsis in to a physical act that allows them to expend all that excess negative energy so all that is left is the high of endorphins that makes them feel better and puts their mind in a much better place to deal with what is bothering them.