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Self-Soothing Techniques: Physical Exercise

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Physical Exercise is an incredibly powerful and compact means of altering your mood. Regular physical exercise offers many of the benefits of the other techniques we've described for controlling moods. It distracts you by causing you to attend to your body sensations rather than to your agitated thoughts. It relaxes and physically exhausts you (after a workout is complete), helping you sleep soundly. It removes the kinks from your muscles and helps you to stay limber and strong. It elevates your mood directly (during and just after a workout) by increasing circulation of naturally occurring body chemicals known as endorphins. Finally, it increases your overall general health and stamina and strongly prevents the development of numerous disabling diseases that otherwise would make life difficult in later years. There is a certain amount of physical pain involved in exercise, but if you can get past that, the benefits are enormous.

An isolated exercise session will be useful for altering mood, mostly because it will be distracting and physically exhausting. However, for maximum benefit, including some prophylactic (preventative) protection from negative moods, exercise should be fairly vigorous and repeated multiple times per week.

Most all aerobic exercise, regularly practiced, will provide benefits.

  • Calisthenics (jumping jacks, push-ups, sit ups, etc
  • Exercise classes (Aerobics, Spinning, Jazzercize, Yoga, Pilates, etc.)
  • Team sports (baseball, softball, rowing, golf, etc.)
  • Solo sports (jogging, swimming, hiking, climbing, etc.)
  • Working out with weights or "Nautilus" style machines.
  • Martial arts

Yoga offers a particularly well balanced and designed exercise program for those who like it (provided that you pursue it regularly and progress through to intermediate classes where the poses begin to require strength to master).

See our Exercise topic center for more information.

Before we leave this section entirely, we wish you to think about two different ways you can use these techniques for controlling your mood.

  • You can use them (some of them anyway; the ones that don't require much practice) on an as-needed basis, pulling them out when you are feeling badly, and then putting them back away when you feel better. For instance, if you find that you get into a bad mood after dealing with a particular person or repeating event, you can use these techniques before you encounter that person, as a kind of inoculation (like a vaccine to keep you from getting the flu) so that your mood is less effected when you do encounter that person.
  • You can also use them on a regular basis so as to gain a protective and preventative effect. When you regularly practice these techniques, you are simply less susceptible to negative moods. They will occur less frequently, and when they do occur, they will likely be less intense or at least shorter in duration. In effect, regular practice of these methods helps you build Emotional Resilience; an important topic on which we have much more to say in this separate document Emotional Resilience topic center.

As-needed usage of these techniques (the first way) are helpful for defusing your negative reaction to existing crises and problems. However, regular use of these techniques (the second way) gives you an opportunity for something even more precious; the opportunity to avoid feeling negative in the first place, or to feel less negative, for less time. If you have the time and attention to spare, you will be rewarded for your regular practice.