The enemy, the instructor, the learner, the healer, are always within the heart.
Anguita 11, 17
Your stress-response system is made up of two parts, the “sympathetic” and the “parasympathetic”. The sympathetic system responds to stress by gearing up the body and mind for action. The parasympathetic helps to calm the body, lowers blood pressure, and improves concentration and consistency. Knowing how to activate the parasympathetic system is a critical skill. The more relaxed you are, mentally and physically, the better you’ll perform.
Nerves, anxiety and self-doubt aren’t the exclusive domain of amateurs, professionals experience them too. Pros, however, are more likely to view these emotions as a normal, and energizing, part of getting ready to perform.
In The Journal of Sports and Medicine, Richard Neil, Stephen Mellalieu, and Sheldon Hanton report, “Studies examining competitive anxiety as a function of skill have shown that…performers who perceive themselves as being in control and able to cope with their anxiety and achieve their goals, are predicted to interpret symptoms associated with competitive anxiety as facilitative. In comparison, those who do not perceive themselves to be in control, and possess negative expectations…are predicted to interpret symptoms as debilitative.”
Imagine you’re about to pour some milk over breakfast cereal, however, you inadvertently tip the pitcher too far and milk floods out, quickly overflowing the cereal bowl. Much the same can happen to people in high-pressure situations. Stress-driven hormones flood the brain’s prefrontal cortex, washing away the ability to focus and concentrate…at least for some of us. Others, however, thrive in high-pressure situations. Why?
All of us have a gene, called COMT (Catechol-O-methyltransferase), which has been associated with the control of the pressure/stress-related hormones. Researchers have argued that the gene works slower in some people than in others, making them more susceptible to nervousness, anxiety, self-doubt and even depression.
An independent study examined Taiwanese students, who were required to write an important test that could dramatically affect their futures. Researchers compared the blood samples of 779 students who had just taken the exam. They reported that although all the students carried the COMT gene, there appeared to be two varieties of the gene-one that worked quickly and the other more slowly. The faster acting gene appeared to clear the stress hormones from the prefrontal cortex faster, thereby assisting problem-solving, planning, thinking and reasoning; the exam scores for the students, with the faster acting variant, were reported to be significantly higher.
The same study, however, argued that when students with the slower-acting COMT gene understood and accepted that nerves, self-doubt and anxiety are a normal process of the mind to get them ready to perform, the more their results improved when they practiced targeted training techniques.
Their opnion is nothing new. Centuries earlier, Dogen (1200-1253 A.D.) wrote, “Anxiety is the driving force to enlightenment. Without it as a spur, we are left to flounder in a shallow, insecure life, eternally caught in the vicious circle of ignorance. Anxiety, when accepted, works as the striking of a match in the dark, giving us a glimpse of our impasse and at the same time, igniting our desire to break out of it."
Every day will bring new challenges, new crises and new opportunities. The difference is that once you learn how to mentally conquer these hills, you can do it again and again.
This yoga-based technique is a popular relaxation exercise.
-Lie down on your back and spread out your arms and legs to resemble a star.
-Breathe in gently and slowly stretch out your right arm. Hold your breath to a count of “four”.
-Relax your arm and slowly breathe out.
-Repeat two or three more times. Feel the tension flow out, feel relaxation flow in.
-Repeat this exercise with your other arm and both legs.
-Close your eyes and do “The Five Deep Breaths”.
-When finished, imagine that you are standing next to a road, watching traffic flow by. The image doesn’t have to be precise, a general impression is fine.
-Label each car or truck with an emotion or thought and watch it flow away.
-If a particular person or event triggers Conditioned Responses, imagine placing that person and/or the event in a car or truck and watch them flow away.
-Watch your thoughts and emotions come and go while you sit centered and focused.
Next, we discuss a critical factor in attaining goals, “Attitude”.