Recovery for the mind with Professor Andy Lane

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Professor Andy Lane joins us today as part of Mental Health Awareness Week to talk about the importance of recovering mentally as well as physically from training, work and the demands of day to day life. Andy is a Sports Psychologist and a sub 3 hour marathon runner who has published extensively in his field. We’ll be teaming up in today’s blog to discuss why emotional recovery is important and what strategies athletes can use to help. Follow Andy on Twitter via @AndyLane27 and check out his excellent website winninglane.com.

In the first part of this series on recovery we highlighted that we need to recover from both physical and emotional stress. In clinic it appears few athletes commit time to recovery and even fewer focus on their emotional needs and yet research has highlighted that athletes may be vulnerable to a range of mental health problems (Rice et al. 2016). It’s hardly surprising when you consider the challenges that athletes of all levels face, juggling training, competing, work and family life. Mental wellbeing is important for all of us and can influence performance, recovery and injury risk;

Jeffreys (2005) sums this up nicely,

“Although we progressively build athletes physical capabilities and allow them to handle large loads, all too often their psychological and emotional capabilities are less than optimally developed. Where this is the case, emotional or psychological stressors can have a dramatic effect on total stress and may therefore negatively affect recovery and the level of athletic performance.”

And so how do we deal with our emotions…

Firstly, we all have a set of strategies we used to help us manage emotions. Studies have used simple methods and asked people what they use from a long list (see Stevens & Lane, 2000). Strategies include taking exercise, listening to music, and talking to someone. When experiencing a negative mood state, we can change what we do, and so exercise or listen to music and we could change how we think about the cause of the stress. For example, try to change how important the goal was, or we take a different perspective on the cause of the emotion. We are usually very hard on ourselves, but when a friend or colleague is experiencing a negative mood, we try to help them. Taking a 3rd person perspective is a very effective method of emotion regulation.  Another approach is to try to suppress the emotions; squash down the feelings. Of course sometimes we have to do this; when annoyed at work or in public situations when you can’t show emotions. It helps to find time to unpack these emotions, to think them through and reappraise them. Techniques that help this include expressive writing, a technique that is simple to do.

Exercise can help manage stress, and a way of doing this is to ensure that your goal for the run is not to achieve an outcome such as finish in certain time. Your emotions will be tied to that outcome. In contrast, having a more general goal, something like just going out for a run, or enjoying the run, can give you an opportunity for you to let your mind roam. When using exercise though bear in mind the overall exercise load and consider alternatives to running such as cycling, walking or swimming to vary the load placed on tissue and allow physical recovery if needed.

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Prevention is better than cure so proactive strategies are preferable. Encourage people to reflect and identify the intensity of their feelings. Its easy to do this using standardised tools such as the Brunel Mood Scale (Terry, Lane et al., 1999,2003) which is available online, with norms, and free to use. Reflect on your feelings and try to identify their cause; by identifying the cause, you can make a decision to try to reappraise. Identifying the potential cause is important as an underlying mood can have pervasive effects on other areas of life. When in a bad mood, we see the world through the eyes of that bad mood, and can interpret life negatively. If you identify what is causing the mood, or could be causing it, and then work on those, then you can go some way to finding mental balance.

Rigid or unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others can contribute to stress. Try to keep expectations realistic and responsive to change. For example a runner’s work becomes very busy during marathon training. She has to increase her hours and regularly works 80 hours per week including long days on little sleep. Her original expectation was to train hard and beat her best marathon time. She’s holding on to this expectation and hasn’t altered it at all in face of considerable change and this is contributing towards her stress. It also means she’s continuing a challenging training programme without adequate recovery both physically and emotionally. More fluid expectations that respond to change would be helpful in this situation. She could reduce her training while work is busier or look to strike a better work/life balance where possible. Taking 3rd person perspective (as mentioned above) could allow her a more compassionate view of herself. This attitude of ‘self care‘ rather than self criticism can be helpful in facilitating change and altering our expectations of ourself.

Jeffreys (2005) recommend build coping skills to manage the demands of your sport. This can include developing self regulation, goal setting, communicating your needs well with others (for example you coach), maintaining a positive outlook and having a team around you to provide social support. Planning relaxation breaks and downtime with family and friends can be an important part of this and can remind us about life outside of our sport. Practicing relaxation techniques, guided imagery, meditation or mindfulness may also have a role in managing mood and mental health and can be used regularly as part of recovery. Develop strategies to manage acute anxiety, or distress such as a ‘Pause Pack’ (see below) with some simple ideas that you have found work for you. Alongside this consider what will help in the longer term to address the causes of emotional stress and help improve your recovery and performance.

An extract from Tom’s ‘Pause Pack’ on dealing with acute stress

Some final thoughts;

Emotion regulation is complex; here are some top tips;

  1. What strategies do you use when in a bad mood? Write them down and remind yourself of these when you feel low.
  2. If you are likely to do things that can cause a bad mood, try to anticipate the pitfalls of these situations and work through possible outcomes. Its ok to feel negative after struggling in an important race, but its also worth remember that a sport does not define you as a person, and you have many facets (i.e., being a good father, friend, family member…) and focusing on these can act as a good distraction.
  3. Emotions are social; people can help change your mood, and you can help change others. Importantly, the act of trying to help someone else can be a really good way to improve your own mood.

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