By Dr. Allison Belger
Stress and anxiety are so much a part of our lives. Even for those of us who don’t suffer from clinical levels of anxiety and are not under duress due to extreme life circumstances, worry and concern creep in regularly, can affect our emotional and relational lives, and can wreak havoc on our performance if we don’t develop effective coping strategies.
During the past few weeks, I’ve been approached by a number of different people asking for help in handling anxiety, and it occurred to me that putting together a list of strategies might be of benefit for my readers. These stress-ridden individuals are a diverse bunch — from the 30-something professional seeking a new job and worried about the interview, to the 13-year-old competitive soccer player having nightmares about club tryouts, to the 24-year-old CrossFit athlete preparing for the upcoming CrossFit Games qualifiers, to the 16-year-old student anticipating taking the SAT. Each is looking for ways to settle his/her mind in order to navigate tense situations as optimally as possible. Below are some tips and strategies that can help manage anxiety and performance issues that permeate our busy lives.
- 4-7-8 breathing techniques: When we are anxious, we tend to have shallow breathing from our chest, which means we get less than optimal levels of oxygen intake. 4-7-8 breathing allows us to increase oxygen intake and leads to a calming effect. The gist of it is to sit down, place your tongue behind your front teeth, and breathe in through your nose for four counts. You then hold your breath for seven counts and actively exhale for eight. (Lightheadedness can occur in beginners.) Repeat the process up to four times in a session, up to twice daily, or based on your levels of acute stress. This is a great strategy to implement in anticipation of a stressful event or for performance anxiety.
- Visualization: I’ve written about this longstanding and well-researched sports performance strategy many times before. The idea is to engage in a regular practice of walking yourself through the steps of an anxiety-producing scenario. Lying on the floor in a dark, quiet room without distractions, mentally run through the steps in an upcoming competition, presentation, or exam. Be relentless about the details: see your clothes, smell the air, imagine the way the ball feels as it touches your feet, or the way the pencil feels in your hand. Imagine your audience laughing, smiling, reacting positively to you, and feel that response. Visualize things going according to plan and force yourself to experience the details of how that looks and feels.
- Education: Learn about the physiological realities of arousal and performance anxiety. Knowledge is power. Being able to recognize that adrenaline is meant to increase performance and has real benefits when appropriately channeled will allow you to embrace its effects when you’re anxious. Understanding the Yerkes-Dodson law of arousal and optimal performance will give you perspective on the importance of being jazzed enough to perform well while being calm enough to make sure that happens.
- Allow your body (and mind) to do its thing: Don’t over-think things during a performance. I’ve written in great detail about the role of conscious processing theory in learning new motor patterns and sports skills. The application for today’s article is to remind us that once our bodies know how to do something–having practiced movements at great length via training–we should just allow the body to follow through and do its thing. Verbally mediated processing, on the other hand, may hinder performance. Unfortunately, when we are anxious, we tend to rely on the kind of language-based, analytical thinking that actually gets in the way of our success. This approach can also be applied to test taking and public speaking; don’t over-think something you’ve practiced or completed multiple times in training versions of the real thing.
- Engage in positive self-affirmation leading up to a stressful performance or test. Studies have shown that reminding ourselves of our positive attributes (e.g. “I’m a charitable person” or “I am a great friend and loyal confidante”) prior to engaging in a stressful task allows us to take the edge off our performance and leads us to be more open to feedback and personal growth. In a nutshell, if we enter an anxiety-ridden evaluative situation feeling good about ourselves and recognizing the totality of who we are, we are less likely to experience the situation as do-or-die.
- Create a mantra: It should be a short, simple phrase that works by blocking negative thinking while focusing our minds in a positive process. Such phrases as “I’ve got this” or “I belong here” or “No worries, keep going, do your thing” or “It’s hard, but I’m tough” are examples of simple mantras that can redirect the mind when tempted to go down a slippery slope of negative thinking. Without this tactic, if we miss the first ball that comes to us on the soccer field, we might start telling ourselves that we have no business being on this team, and everyone is going to know it. Or, we might feel excessively clumsy as we do our first trick in a dance routine or seriously unprepared when the first question on an exam is a stumper. If we have a quick-and-practiced way of reeling in these negative thoughts, we can avoid the unwanted downward spiral. Having a go-to mantra can serve this function.
- Spend time leading up to the performance or competition doing things you enjoy with people who make you feel good; avoid negative thinking about possible failure. Instead, occupy yourself and your mind with thoughts and experiences that make you feel positive and energized.
- Reflect on your performance when it’s over; this is a helpful tool for facing future challenges and scenarios. Be sure to take time to consider how things went for you—jot down notes about which strategies worked best and which didn’t seem to work as well. Learn from experience so that you become an expert in managing yourself and your levels of negative thought and anxiety. Stressful situations are a part of life, and it behooves us all to get a handle on what helps us calm our minds and perform at our best.
While this is, by no means, an exhaustive list, it is a great start and hopefully includes some helpful, practical strategies as you confront anxiety and the next challenge in your life. One caveat worth mentioning: if you suffer from extreme anxiety and feel burdened by negative thinking much of the time, you should reach out to a mental health professional for assistance.