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High Highs and Low Lows: Dealing with Emotional Swings

Coach Vanessa Foerster offers five steps to regulate your emotions

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Have you ever found yourself reveling in confidence from a breakthrough in training one day and then completely devastated when you can’t hit the mark the next? That’s because performance and emotions are intertwined.

Emotional swings happen, but for some the swings can become more volatile. If you regularly experience higher highs and lower lows, those peaks and valleys can become disruptive to your training and performance. When emotions spin out of control, you may notice it harder to get motivated for your next training session. That emotional volatility is a sign to work on controlling your emotions through emotional regulation.

What is it?

Emotions are part of the human experience. We feel nervous before a race. We feel frustrated when training partners show up late to group runs. We feel disappointed when we don’t hit race goals. Emotions by themselves are not a problem. The problem arises when those emotions impact behavior negatively or cause you to make choices that are not in line with who you are or your goals.

Emotional regulation is your ability to control your emotional state. Research shows the power of emotion in human functioning and the use of emotion as a way to give information to help guide behaviors and choices. In athletic performance, athletes experience a wide variety of types, intensities and durations of emotions. Your ability to effectively control your emotions can dramatically change how you perform in both training and racing. Especially because emotional responses are often heightened in and around races and competition.

Some athletes are better at regulating their emotions than others. What you observe as staying cool under pressure on a start line is simply a by-product of self-regulating difficult emotions.

The good news is, emotional regulation is a skill that can be learned and improved. Learning how to manage negative experiences and negative emotions will improve not just your mental state, but your physical performance.

Why does it matter?

Unmanaged emotion creates physical tension in your body. That tension negatively affects your ability to get the most out of each training session. Increased tension equals decreased performance. The way to create a strong mind-body connection is through regulating your emotions.

When difficult circumstances arise, like bad weather on race day or misplacing your running shoes, emotional regulation allows you to be the powerful problem solver that you are without wasting precious energy on things you cannot control.

Additionally, when training is disrupted because your emotions are spinning out of control, other areas of your life are also impacted. Family, work, relationships all suffer when emotions are high and there is no regulation process in place. If you don’t know how to manage your emotions after a training session where you missed your pace targets, you may take that frustration out on an unsuspecting partner. The skill of emotional regulation minimizes the impact of your emotions on others.

How do I do it?

Here are 5 steps to regulate your emotions when you feel triggered:

Don’t avoid the emotion

If you are like most high performers, you might be good at avoiding negative emotion. What makes emotions difficult is not the emotion itself, but the habit of ignoring or avoiding them. The first step to managing and regulating your emotions is to change that habit.

Create space between trigger and response

Take a breath. Pause and allow yourself to feel whatever is coming up. You cannot learn from what you do not create space for. Follow the next few steps before you respond or react to the emotion.

Describe where and how you feel it in your body

This is the step in the skill of emotional regulation that develops the connection between mind and body. Get curious about the physical sensations you notice. Do you feel a change in your breathing? Is your heart rate increasing? Do you feel your shoulders tensing up? These are physical clues to what you are feeling emotionally.

Name the emotion

After you have a better sense of the physical sensations, it is easier to name the emotion. Naming it helps gain a better understanding and control over it. Sadness is not the same as frustration. Mad is not the same as annoyed. Get clear on what emotion you feel. The clearer you are, the easier it will be to notice it in the future.

Accept the emotion

The emotion you feel is a normal part of being human. What you feel is valid. Give yourself permission to feel it, rather than beating yourself up for feeling a certain way. Be present to the emotion without judgment. Accepting the emotion allows you to change your experience with it. The skill of emotion regulation puts you in charge of your emotional state at all times. It is the performance secret weapon you never knew you needed.