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Building strength, balance, power and grace from within

Stress and Anxiety

 In 1932, Walter Cannon identified the Adrenergic (Fight or Flight) Response. This natural phenomenon is necessary to help us run faster/fight harder when we are in danger or feel threatened.  The hypothalamus (located at the base of the brain) signals the adrenal gland to release  the hormones Adrenaline and Cortisol.  Adrenaline increases your heart rate and blood pressure in an attempt to get more oxygen to the muscles. Adrenaline also increases the sugars in the blood stream, enhances the brains use of glucose and aids in tissue repair. Cortisol suppresses the digestive system as well as the growth process and reproductive system. It has also been shown to affect the immune system as well. Basically, the release of these hormones activates the systems in demand while supressing other systems.

While these reactions are important when in danger, it can have some negative effects on performance. While we are busy focusing on the "threat", we are more accident prone and tend to make poor decisions. Our fine motor skills deteriorate and we become anxious, jumpy and irritable. We may tremble and become nauseous.

Immediate Response to Stress

  • Increased Heart Rate
  • Increased Blood Pressure
  • Increased respiration
  • Oxygen to working muscles
  • Increased sugars in blood stream
  • Brains use of glucose enhanced
  • Suppression of digestion
  • Increased flow of material through colon
  • Shaky fingers
  • Sweaty palms and arm pits
  • Nauseaousness
  • Increased irritability
  • Deterioration of fine motor skills

Physical Symptoms of Ongoing Stress

  • Muscular Pain (especially neck & back)
  • Headaches
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Fatigue
  • Intestinal Issues
  • Grinding teeth/clenched jaw
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Frequent Colds 
  • Higher incidence of allergic reactions 
  • Susceptible to infections

Mental Symptoms of Ongoing Stress

  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Burnout
  • Inability to focus
  • Depression
  • Excess emotion (anger, sadness)
  • Insecurity

Managing Stress & Anxiety 

  • Learn coping mechanisms
  • Know that it is ok to make mistakes
  • Create a "safe" training environment
  • Learn stress reduction techniques (relaxation, breathing exercises)
  • Know what level of anxiety you perform best and try to attain it
  • Allow designated worry times
  • Keep a journal or diary to write down worries
  • Talk to someone (a trusted adult, coach, sports psychologist,etc)
  • Address excess stress response before it becomes habitual
  • Achieve life balance

  Exercise vs. Mental Profile

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to take a few classes with one of the pioneers in Sports Psychology at UW-Madison by the name of William P Morgan. He has done research in many areas of sports psychology. In 1970, he identified the Iceberg Profile. It was found that those who exercise regularly have decreased tension, depression, anger, fatigue and confusion. His work also demonstrated that there was a direct correlation between exercise and decreased anxiety.  

 Performance Anxiety

Your reaction to stress is unique. Your genetics and your past experiences play a role in how you respond to stress. 

Do what you do. Establish a quality routine (before, during and after practice) and stick to it. Skate like you have skated a thousand times, dance like you have danced in practice, warm up like you do on any given day. If you are training with quality, maximum effort, and polish, performance shouldn't be any different.

Individuals perform well at varying degrees of arousal (relaxation vs. excitability). For this reason, it is best not to attempt to relax or pep up an entire group. To perform at an optimum level, athletes (with the guidance of a coach and sport psychologist ) should learn to assess their own anxiety levels during successful competitions and performances in an attempt to reproduce that level of arousal for future performances. By doing this, individuals can put themselves into their unique performance zone.  William P. Morgan, University of Wisconsin.

Gain Experience in your youth. More Experience on stage early on has been equated with less anxiety. (Hamilton, LH, "Advice for dancers, Emotional counsel and practical strategies", San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Set the right goals. In a study by Koestner, Lacaille and Whipple, musicians were shown to benefit from both intrinsic goals ("Have fun during the performance." or "Enjoy the Experience") and mastery goals ("Learn from the experience" or "Stay focused on what I had to do.")  whereas they responded poorly to performance goals such as "Have a perfect performance" or "Impress Others". Koestner, Lacaille and Whipple,"Reevaluating the Benefits of Performance Goals..." in the Medical Problems of Performing Artists, March 2005 publication.

Establish mental skills at the beginning of the training year. The competition or performance setting is not the time or the place to modify nervous behavior. At the beginning of the season, the coach, athlete and sports psychology professional should meet to come up with a year round strategy for managing performance jitters. 

Develop a positive attitude. Replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Use positive slogans on your training binder or room. Write down a list of positive phrases and personal attributes to replace the negative thoughts.

Focus on focus. Whether one is in a classroom or in a practice, focus is key. Learn (and teach if you are a coach) strategies for focus and refocus. Work on increasing the length of time that you or your athlete is able to focus. Lawrence W. Judge, Ball State University.