• Claire Higgins

Self-Regulation & Vitality for Positive Behavioural Change

A lack of energy (vitality) and emotional-cognitive balancing skills (self-regulation) can make it harder to follow through on positive behavioural change.

In his book, Calm Energy, Robert Thayer, an American mood researcher and psychology professor explains how low energy and tension can lead to increased stress and low moods. In turn, these can lead to poor lifestyle choices such as using food to lower our stress levels instead of turning to a healthier action such as physical exercise.

Positive behavioural change is one of the areas I cover as a Positive Psychology Practitioner for exercise and sport. I've also found that my own experiences with low energy and emotional highs and lows tend to be triggered by two things: (1) Mental exhaustion from work; (2) Physical exhaustion from physical activity.

This blog post takes a brief look at how this topic relates to people like myself who already engage in exercise and sport. Motivation to work out or train isn't such a challenge for us, nor is the drive to perform and achieve. However, knowing when to switch off to replenish and revive our energy stores may be more of a challenge.

Let's take a typical scenario I have faced in the past. It is one I've also witnessed in others. After a long day at work (for me, running my own business), I would eagerly leave my desk to train in Martial Arts. An intense Judo or Karate class would follow a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class. A large meal would follow all of that at around 11pm.

The combination of mental and physical exhaustion from pushing myself would lead to quick energy fixes through food. I worked with a sports nutrition expert to factor in energy gels and protein shakes. Neither worked in terms of appetite control later on. It was much easier to eat a carb-fuelled meal late at night. But "easy" isn't often "right".

The next morning, I would wake up feeling physically sore and low on energy. After a couple of cups of strong coffee, I would dive into work and do it all over again. Achievement wasn't far behind but physically and emotionally, it was tough.

The bigger challenge I faced was figuring out how to change my habits now this pattern of negative behaviour was so deeply engrained. It has taken several years to address this. Had I known then what I know now, perhaps it could have been a quicker ride.

This is what I've learned.

Self-Regulation and Vitality are intertwined.

Self-regulation is the ability to effectively manage thoughts and emotions.

Vitality is related to your physical energy state and potential for energy renewal.

You can experience low levels of self-regulation and vitality, and high levels of self-regulation and vitality. Positive behavioural change requires the latter, and vitality comes first.

Learning how to regulate your physical energy and emotions is a process. If you are facing any kind of exhaustion - physical, emotional, or mental - the entry point to regulation starts with the body.

Before explaining how this works, allow me to share a trap I think many of us fall into. Physical exhaustion hits and emotional imbalance often isn't far behind. Particularly for athletes and coaches who may be wired to train, compete and achieve.

Our feelings can bounce between frustration, annoyance, sadness, disappointment, anxiety, and fear. We aren't performing or recovering as we "should". We're being "left behind". Our "identity" of performing is taking too many blows.

Add to this any life issues we're also facing - a difficult relationship, challenges at work, a geographical move - and our energy levels will be tested further.

Now ask a person going through this to share how they feel. The immediate effect of downloading a tonne of stress could feel like a relief in the moment. But when that downloading is repeated our experience can become intellectualised.

Of course, if we have real issues beyond exercise and sport that need to be tended to (an abusive relationship, a dead-end career) then we need to pause and think more critically about our next steps here. But if it is not urgent it is best to tend to the body before we tend to our emotions and mind.

Another reason for tending to the body first is that without physical energy, our ability to regulate our emotions and thoughts may be so much harder. Energy will be wasted. Positive actions will be started, stopped, and restarted.

There are many ways to restore and rebalance our physical energy.

Let's start with the Inner Athletics Healing System.

Sleep is the first step to restoring physical energy. Why? Our mind is given a chance to rest and our body an opportunity to repair.

8-10 hours is a good amount of time to aim for here. Remember, it's about quality sleep. Make a habit of going to bed earlier rather than sleeping in later. Engage in non-fatiguing activities after 6pm. Rest your mind and relax your body.

Read the science on why sleep improves recovery here.

Nutrition is the next step. What are we eating and why? Chances are we know exactly what, how much, and when to eat. Simplifying that process can work wonders.

Focus on the fundamentals. For example, eat fresh protein and get most of your carbs from vegetables. If you have specific dietary needs, seek out professional support. Get re-aquainted with your kitchen and turn it into a place of healing and restoration.

Read the science on how nutrition aids athlete recovery here.

Nature comes next. Being in nature - the forest, mountains, beach, desert, countryside - can revive our energy levels and remind us to be at peace with who we are.

If you are usually very active, then active recovery in nature may be helpful in regaining balance. A long walk in nature or swimming in a lake or the sea could be more beneficial for you. Experiencing hot and cold elements can also help your muscles to recover.

Read the science on how being in nature may reduce stress here.

Connection is the last step. When our bodies are balanced and our minds are rested, now is the time to connect with others and share what is going on.

This may be a great time to hang out with family or friends, especially in nature, or talk to a professional. Make sure that these connections are kind and don't set you back . If your recovery is a longer process, be sure to connect regularly along the way.

Read the science on compassion and social connection here.

Bottom Line

Tending to these 4 steps doesn't guarantee a better performance or more achievements. But it will help us to replenish lost energy and rebalance emotions. Whether we want to perform better or achieve more after that will be up to us.

With a stronger reserve base within, our potential for positive behavioural change will increase over time. As emotions resettle, our minds will be clearer. Perspective will return. Better judgment and decision-making will follow from there.

Forcing ourselves to engage in any kind of behavioural change when we're in a state of exhaustion can be a mistake for many of us. While we may tough it out mentally, our physical and emotional selves will just bear the brunt of more pressure.

Allowing time for healing may mean scaling back on training or work for a while. It could mean reducing your training hours and/or working a shorter day.

In some cases, you may need to make significant changes to how you train and work. If both won't allow you the time you need to rest and recover, something will have to give and it's better that this "something" isn't your health or peace of mind.

Personally, the reason it took so long to learn the lesson of slowing down was because deep down, I didn't want to. I was resistant to any health intervention that would limit my work or training. I thought layer upon layer of effort was the way.

There is a tipping point for effort among high-performers. Excellence requires sacrifice, but we need to be mindful to create pit stops along the way. Mental toughness needs to be balanced with resilience-based practices such as the ones above.

For those of us who resist positive behavioural change - perhaps because we are so caught up in performance and achievement - we may need to practice the art of "nothing" first. Can we find a way to not perform or not achieve, just for a while?

High performance of any kind may need the complete opposite to bring us back into balance, particularly when other curve balls are thrown our way.

High exertion in work, exercise, or sport may need to be followed by periods of doing nothing, or at least doing very little, in order to recover and rebalance.

Consider the wisdom of seasons. Would nature try to do it all in one day?

Finally, consider this. If you can positively restore your energy and peace of mind, would you really need to engage in behavioural change?


Claire Higgins is the Director of Inner Athletics. She is a Positive Psychology Practitioner with a Masters degree in Exercise & Sport Psychology, and leads operations, education and research at the Positive Psychology Guild.

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