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Can an Emotional Detox Help You Become a Better Athlete?

Your emotional health can have a direct impact on how you're feeling and performing physically.

Deepak Chopra has said, “Pain is normal in life, but suffering isn’t.” When we harbor toxic, turbulent, and traumatic emotions, we suffer in the long run—physically and mentally—because we do not know how to deal with the pain. 

There’s more than one reason that emotions are ranked at the top of the Prime Sports Pyramid (a popular framework for determining athletic success.) A study of Olympic athletes by Orlick and Partington found that out of the three states of readiness—i.e. mental, physical, and technical—it was only mental factors that were consistently linked to the top Olympic rankings. Being in tune with your emotions and achieving what’s known as “emotional mastery” gives athletes the power to use their emotions—be it fear and frustration, or exhilaration and excitement—as tools to optimize performance, rather than impede it. 

However, no matter how emotionally intelligent you are, emotions can still quickly and easily build up in the body and become ‘trapped’. Think: low grade stress at work or faint but insidious anxiety about an upcoming event. This year has dealt everyone with their fair share of turbulence. And for this reason, the concept of catharsis, or emotional detox/processing, has begun to circulate once more.

While exercise is, in itself, a form of release, it should not be the sole outlet to deal with your emotional health. Sitting still and mindfully taking inventory of your emotional state and what is currently plaguing you can have a profound effect. But be warned, this is about more than a simple once-off journaling session. To truly free yourself of debilitating and deep-seated feelings, you must really do the work and accept that “emotional purging” can also occur. 

“If someone wants to get to the root of their issues, they should definitely make sure they’re ready to do so, as digging through trauma can be traumatic itself,” said Lisa Hayim, a registered dietician and health expert behind The Well Necessities, who has written about emotional processing here.  

“Emotional detox/processing can be liberating and freeing—but the emotional purge that can follow is more of a side effect than what you’re going after,” she warned. “Body wisdom is real—the body processes emotions and it will ensure you don’t move on too quickly by any means necessary, including putting you in physical pain.” 

She added, “It’s painful because I believe it is the body getting rid of what the mind has already ‘purged’ through processing. Just because the mind is now feeling clear, the body holds onto emotions, and letting go can be expressed and felt in many ways.”

Hayim notes that during a recent emotional purge of her own, which came about after she gave a speech on failure to an audience of 400 people, she was left with flu-like symptoms and her eye twitched for three weeks straight. But simultaneously, she was experiencing a mental “high and lightness.” 

“It was incredibly frustrating. In the [Western world], we think that healing should be ‘quick,’ and therefore healing should be linear. But the truth is, it’s not linear for the body. Healing doesn’t come with an immediate absence of discomfort and sometimes symptoms can worsen before getting better.” 

“I was so confused as to how I could do all this emotional processing and yet be feeling crappy. The body is our ultimate protector, and after intense emotional processing, it needs TLC. The body lets you know by showing symptoms that it needs your support. Go slow, be gentle with yourself, and if anything feels too intense, seek medical attention immediately,” she advised. 

DIY Emotional Detox

If you’re willing and ready to undertake an emotional detox of your own, Deepak Chopra advised to first identify and locate the emotion physically by sitting and meditating in undisturbed silence. Allow a memory of an upsetting experience to come to you and think about it in detail (“as if you were reporting it for a newspaper,” he noted.) The intention is to witness this event, almost as an outsider, as opposed to the person it happened to. Identify what you are feeling and allocate a word to the incident, such as unappreciated, insulted, etc. 

Focus your attention on that word and let your attention pass through your body until you can locate where you’re physically feeling the experience (likely the chest, throat, or gut.) The ways in which to then process the emotions that are brought up include writing them down, breathing exercises, and sharing or celebrating them. Like with all mental health journeys, it is certainly not a case of one-size-fits-all. 

For Hayim, something that has helped immeasurably is implementing daily meditation—and studies have shown that using mindfulness and meditation techniques can increase athletic ability and focus. 

“I believe in securing a daily meditation process so that we can constantly be dealing with the painful stuff on a conscious level without burying it deep within us,” she offered.   

She added, “Working with a therapist can be incredibly useful too, especially if the individual has dealt with trauma or abuse.”