Monday, October 4, 2010

Workplace Stress and Coping Through Exercise

Many people use exercise as a way of coping with stress and with good success. Creating a stress management plan that incorporates emotional control as well as exercise can ensure that even when a person is unable to get to the gym, they will have coping methods that they can use to deal with immediate stressors.
Long hours and high responsibility have created a lot of stress for a financial manager, but she finds that exercise relieves the stress. As her personal trainer, I can help her to incorporate additional coping methods that will increase the stress relief that she feels when exercising as well as help her deal with stressors when she is not exercising.
Emotional control is an important first step in stress management. As noted by Ziegler (as cited by Gill & Williams, 2008), emotions can affect a person physically and likewise physical symptoms can affect emotions which creates a negative thought-anxiety cycle. The two feed into and off of each other, increasing the negative effects of both. Breaking this cycle using cognitive skills or cognitive-behavioral skills is a way of taking this first step.
Focus is an important part of exercise as well as sports. Gill & Strom (1985) found that a narrow and external focus resulted in more repetitions of an endurance task and participants preferred that method to a narrow and internal focus. A narrow and external focus is another way of describing dissociation: that is, the person is focusing on a very specific thing that is outside of their bodies, such as a photograph or clock. In terms of stress management, this would manifest itself as putting aside all of the worries and stresses that an individual is feeling and focusing attention on the specific task at hand or on a specific external item as  the individual is exercising. This should result in not only better results when exercising, but also provides a respite from the worries and stresses the individual is feeling.
Cognitive-behavioral techniques are beneficial as they address both the cognitive and physical aspects of stress. In a way, the two work together as an antidote to the negative thought-anxiety cycle by creating a positive correlation between thoughts and physical reactions, with each feeding into and expanding on the other. The cognitive component may involve cognitive skills such as cognitive restructuring in which the individual identifies that a thought is negative, replaces the negative thought with a more positive and constructive one, and then reinforces this using self-talk. The physiological component may involve relaxation techniques such as progressive relaxation which is a method of relaxation that involves tensing a specific muscle group and then relaxing it, using breathing techniques as a cue (i.e. tense the muscle group, then slowly relax it as you breathe in and out deeply). The process is then repeated for various other muscle groups.
So how does this apply to the stressed financial manager? Using Ron Smith’s (as cited by Gill & Williams, 2008) model for cognitive-affective stress management, we start with an initial consultation with the financial manager to fully identify her situation and her specific needs. Following that, we can develop a stress management plan together and I can inform her of the ways in which this specific plan is going to assist her to ensure her buy-in. Next, we’ll start working on acquiring the necessary cognitive and cognitive-behavioral skills she needs to use. We’ll practice focusing on a specific external object while she exercises to help clear her mind and improve her endurance. We’ll practice cognitive restructuring by examining some of her negative thoughts and specific counter-points to those negative thoughts. We’ll practice progressive relaxation to help relieve the physical tension in her body any time she feels stressed. With the skill rehearsal, we’ll construct imaginary but plausible scenarios that she may encounter in the future and ways in which she can apply cognitive restructuring or progressive relaxation in these scenarios. Throughout this process, we’ll continue to evaluate the benefit of this model and alter it as needed.
Workplace stress can be especially daunting when an individual works long hours and has a great degree of responsibility. Exercise can help alleviate stress by offering both a distraction and an outlet. Cognitive skills can help an individual focus on the physical task and Cognitive-behavioral skills can also help an individual develop coping mechanisms that they can use in the workplace.


Gill, D.L., & Strom, E.H. (1985). The effect of attentional focus on performance of an endurance 
     task. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 16, 217-223.

Gill, D. L., & Williams, L. (2008). Psychological dynamics of sport and exercise (3rd
      Ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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