The Fit List

Stress and the Athlete's Body

It's not just mental. Even mild amounts of anxiety and stress can subvert your performance.

Stress and the Athlete's Body

Getting stressed about competition—or anything at all—can put you in poorer shape to deal with it. Photo: Wavebreak Media/ThinkStock

You’re lying in bed, and you suddenly start worrying. It could be about anything. Or nothing. Maybe it’s just a sinking feeling in your chest, with no thoughts at all—until that old, familiar darkness descends, beckoning the doubts back in again. Then your heart rate quickens as your mind whirs with worst-case scenarios. Tightness creeps into your neck and shoulders, but you’re too busy worrying to notice.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. While stressing doesn’t necessarily make you diagnosable, it does mean you’re anxious, probably tired, and possibly less likely to be at your physical best. In addition, we often don’t realize the extent to which everyday stress can compromise performance. 

“Our self-awareness as individuals is incredibly poor,” says Adam Naylor, a sports psychologist and Boston University professor. “There’s a reason you’re exhausted.”

Even if you don’t recognize its physical manifestations, your anxiety is burning up energy stores and motivation levels you could be using to train. When your brain detects and responds to a threat, it leads to the release of adrenaline, says psychologist Richard Zinbarg, who heads up Northwestern University’s Anxiety Lab. In the short term, this gives the body a boost of strength and energy. But when it persists, it leaves the body drained. While the exact impact varies from person to person and is difficult to quantify, the effect is major.

“Like a car engine that revs into the red for too long, it will break down over time,” sports psychologist and performance coach Robert Smith says. “Our bodies start to show the wear and tear of chronic stress.”

The solution? Diagnosed anxiety disorders are best treated by a medical professional. But for the rest of us, the first step is awareness. Naylor recommends doing a “shoulder check” throughout the day. If they’re tense, take a deep breath to release the strain. 

Smith suggests deep breathing—inhale slowly through the nose and exhale out through the mouth. This self-conscious breathing will bring you back to the moment.

Stress management is difficult because we live in a fast-paced society, but many coping mechanisms are fairly simple. It’s about “realizing that we have these skills, but aren’t using them when we most need them,” Naylor says. 

While some level of stress is good for performance—that boost of adrenaline can make you faster on race day—“excessive anxiety is not one bit helpful,” advises Naylor. “If you’re focused enough, you’re focused enough. There’s a tipping point.”

Filed To: Fitness, Wellness

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