Anxiety is a completely normal and expected response. It signals us that danger is lurking around the corner. Back in the day (eons ago), humans encountered lions and tigers and bears out in the wilderness. Seeing a dangerous predator like a lion triggers a very natural fear response in the brain. The brain sets off a series of “alarm bells“, also known as fight-or-flight response.
Specifically, fight-or-flight response is a series of physiological changes in the body that prepare for either fighting, fleeing, or sometimes, freezing in the face of danger.
What happens during fight-or-flight activation? I’m generalizing here so as not to go knee-deep into biochemistry.
- The brain perceives a threat and signals the pituitary glad to release cortisol, the stress hormone, meanwhile the adrenal gland releases adrenaline.
- Heart rate elevates to pump blood to the major muscle groups, fueling them for action.
- Breathing rate increases to oxygenate the blood pumping through the heart, now that the heart is pumping blood faster.
- The digestive system slows down or stops as a result of the blood being redirected through the heart to the major muscle groups.
- Muscles start to tense getting ready for action, either running away or fighting.
- Vision narrows to focus on the target, known as tunnel vision. Peripheral hearing loss may also occur.
- The brain determines the best action based on the situation. The early human either started running towards to protective shelter or attacking the lion for food.
Nowadays, we do not have the same threats (lions lurking in the neighborhood) but we react in the same way to perceived or even imagined danger! Thinking about an upcoming competition can elicit a fight-or-flight response that may feel like anxiety or panic. Learning to identify when your body is activated in this way is the first step in managing that type of physical anxiety.
Feels like this? Below may be helpful for people with a tendency to become very anxious about their sports performance.
Racing heart: Feels like you are going to have a heart attack or your heart is going to pop out of your chest cavity.
Reality is that your mind is reacting to the imagined activity you are planning to do in the near future. Initially, your mind does not differentiate between visualized activity and actually doing the activity. In actual danger, there’s no time to *think* about the threat, thus this response is automatic. It reacts by saying to the body, “Hey guys, it’s about to go down so everyone get fire up!” If you interpret your racing heart as a negative or dangerous symptom, you will become anxious. Instead, by interpreting your racing heart as a positive symptom, one that helps you prepare for action, you can better appreciate your body’s conditioning and preparation.
Faster breathing: Feels like you are hyperventilating, your chest may feel tight, and feels like you are going to have a panic attack.
Reality is that your heart is designed to pump in the used up blood carrying cell waste and carbon dioxide (darker red, almost bluish) into the heart. In the chambers of the heart, the blood is infused with nutrients, oxygen, and hormones (bright red) to be transported out to organs, tissues, and cells of the body. Yes, this includes those large muscle groups made for action! Again, your body is getting ready for physical sports performance and an elevated breathing rate is a positive symptom. Although, if your breathing is very shallow and rapid, it is not as efficient in bringing in fresh air into the entire lungs. Slower paced, full breaths ensure you maximize the oxygen supply for your heart to use. Deep breathing also slows down the heart rate because it doesn’t have to work as hard (i.e., pump faster) to get more oxygen from smaller, shallow breaths.
Breathing takes practice! One way to practice your breathing is to wear a heart rate monitor and just after your cardio exercise, use deep breathing to slow your heart rate. There are many ways to deepen your breath. I like inhaling for four counts and exhaling for four counts. You can return to your regular breathing rate and see the heart rate climb up a little. Returning to deep, slowed breaths usually can bring the heart rate back down.
Side note: You can measure the amount of oxygen in your arterial blood with an oximeter. Normal range is 95% to 100%. Some devices including smart phones have this ability. Below is my own oxygen saturation reading using my phone.
Slowed digestion: Feels like butterflies in the stomach, stomachaches, feeling like vomiting.
Reality: Since the heart is recruiting extra blood for the major muscle groups. The digestive system, which largely uses blood to digest food, is almost stopped. If you’ve had food in the past few hours, stopping midway may result in feeling queasy as those digestive enzymes and acidic juices may begin to bubble up in the wrong direction. It affects everyone differently. Sensations may include aches, fluttering, tightness, cramps or “knots”, bloating, indigestion, and feeling nauseated.
Depending on the type of stomach symptom, you may consider changing the time you eat, reducing or changing the type of food you eat, incorporating peppermint or ginger in the form of candy/mints/drops, tea, or in essential oil form. Relaxing the abdominal muscles may help with the tightness or pressure on the stomach area.
Muscular tension: Feels like shaking, trembling or very tense muscles throughout the body or localized to a particular body region.
Reality is that your heart and lungs have coordinated to provide energy to the large muscle groups in preparation for action. Your muscular system might also have some adrenaline to further energize the muscles. It can feel uncomfortable to have involuntary flexing of the muscles and by interpreting the sensations as negative can hinder or distract your mind from focusing on your sports performance. Having responsive muscles is definitely a positive symptom, but managing the excess energy is crucial so as not to expend that energy too early. Thinking “My body is ready, let’s go!” is a great interpretation and very motivating. Gentle movement like walking around, shaking off the nervous, as in nervous system, energy and focusing on quality deep breathing can help alleviate the muscular tension.
Inability to hear or see around you: Feels like you cannot focus on your surroundings and it’s hard to track the location of others, i.e., your teammates or coach. Feeling scatter-brained with the influx of external stimuli.
Reality is that narrowed vision and hearing was the body’s way of focusing on the threat of danger, for example, that prehistoric lion’s advancing movements. While one popular strategy is to listen to music or whatever on headphones, just before the event it can be beneficial to reacclimatize your hearing to the environmental noises (the court, arena, or gym) so you can prepare yourself to hear your coach over or through the noise.
In closing, use your natural fight-or-flight response to help your performance instead of fearing the symptoms. Become aware of the way your own body manages these physiological changes. Acknowledge that your body is doing exactly what it needs to for undertaking a large amount of athletic activity. Your mindset determines whether your body is your ally or your enemy.
Author: Dr. Yasi Pujols