The Battle of the Butterflies

Fear & Anxiety

Apr 1, 2002
Outside Magazine

FEAR IS SUDDEN AND ARRESTING, a blind-side Holyfield punch. It can start with a sloppy foothold, a hooked ski edge, or an ill-timed paddle stroke. As your body veers toward trouble—cliff, tree, Class V hole the size of a Winnebago—neurons relay electrical impulses from your eyes to your brain's gumball-size amygdala, which sounds the alarm to the hypothalamus. The two structures begin gushing hormones, urging the adrenal glands to start pumping epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol, three stress hormones that ramp up glucose production, increase heart rate, speed up your breathing, and often leave you sweating like a goose at a down-jacket factory. On the upside, though, fear is turbocharging muscles and the brain for confrontation or evasive action—the classic fight-or-flight response—and that can help performance.

Anxiety is a more plodding matter, says Mary Meagher, a psychologist in the behavioral neuroscience group at Texas A&M University, and it's a reaction that's more troublesome to athletes. "Fear and anxiety have different underlying brain circuitry," she says. "Anxiety is future-oriented; it's about potential threats. You're uncertain, aroused at a low level, with clenched muscles and increased pain sensitivity." This is what you might experience before a race or competition, or perhaps when you realize you're 30 feet from the top of your climb and you just placed your last piece of gear (see below for advice on overcoming such predicaments). Anxiety stimulates the amygdala, triggering the production of cortisol but generating less heart-whumping adrenaline than fear does. Fear inspires alarm and action, often suddenly and acutely, outstripping thought; anxiety unfolds more slowly, disrupting thought and evaluation. Thus anxiety is more insidious, magnifying injuries, hindering movements, and knocking athletes out of the blessed neural harmony of competitive flow. But it's more easily controlled than fear.

  • THINK POSITIVE. You've heard it before, but studies by Meagher and others have shown just how well positive thinking can reduce anxiety's physical effects. The trick is to pick realistic motivators, says Steven Ungerleider, author of Mental Training for Peak Performance. "You can continually remind yourself,'I've done this, it's safe—it's dark, but I know this trail.'"

  • MENTALLY PRACTICE OVERCOMING ADVERSITY. Imagine yourself in tough situations. Then decipher what specifically primes your anxiety pump—and what affirmations dull that response. Focus on controlling your breathing (slow and deep, not rapid and shallow), on staying in the present moment (you're on the rock, not plummeting from it), and on visualizing success (you're pulling fluidly through the move).

  • DEVELOP A RELAXATION RITUAL. A simple exercise consistently performed before workouts and events can fend off anxiety. Try this: Lie down comfortably and then progressively tense and relax your major muscle groups individually, starting with your right calf.

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