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Updated: Apr 10

As one of the top US high school distance runners of my decade, I don't think in a million years I would have admitted I was ever anxious. Not because I wasn't, but because I didn't have a word for it. Nobody talked about it. Deer-in-the-headlights-kind-of-shut-down was about the depth of my expression, while under the surface racing thoughts and panic consumed me. I just wish I had had more coping tools...

I don't really remember hearing the word anxiety much until the aughts,

like it hadn't been discovered yet.

I just know that when I learned mindfulness techniques, it was like I had been saved. It was so much easier to be me. So now that we know I was clueless for much of my life, let me drop some knowledge. Emotions are layered and range from basic to complex. They show up on your face, and you feel them in your body. Anxiety is the emotion of fear when we feel threatened by the future.

Threats come in two flavors--a threat to life or a threat to ego. The latter is often irrational. It's not like I was going to be obliterated off the face of the earth if I failed. My brain just thought I was.

Anxiety shows up differently in each of us, and we all have different symptoms. I worked with an athlete who felt leg heaviness and a knot in his chest after a breakthrough performance that launched him to the national stage. Another would throw up before her competitions. Regardless, restless thoughts, rapid heart-rate, and sweating are often part of the entourage. Anxiety can be a spectrum from occasional bouts to an intense disorder. It's important to determine if genetic and other factors going on if it's severely debilitating.

The key is that anxiety is a normal human response to stress that comes with thoughts and physical reactions. Sometimes knowing that makes it more okay, and okay is a good place to start.

Let's say you're preparing for a big competition. In the preceding weeks, you find yourself repeatedly thinking about your event and the pressure you're under. You feel apprehensive. Or, you get suddenly overcome in the middle of performing. You feel powerless.

his is where anxiety hijacks the brain into unconsciously thinking and feeling like you maybe might stop existing unless you achieve your goals. It's irrational, but it's happening. Instead of focusing your energy on training, you drain the well of all energy with worry, which can cause doubt and dread going into the competition. At the same time, you need to be living your life, training well, and being nice to people. T

There is no doubt that emotional-control is a key strength of successful athletes. And by successful, I don't mean just Olympians. I mean people who set goals and meet them.

Through some awareness-building, practice, and integration, an athlete can learn the emotional control to perform at their best.

Mastering your anxiety is more powerful than repressing it. Think of it as going from being the passenger in the car to the driver of the car.

I came up with this thing called, RAD. Recognize what's happening (heart palpitations, spinning thoughts).

Accept it's something that you do (emos happen and these are yours).

Decide what you want to do about it.

Once we accept that emotions are a natural part of all of us, we can start to feel okay, and then make good decisions about how we want to respond.

I tell my clients:

“Who we are doesn’t go away—we just learn to manage who we are.”

When I asked one young client her mental health goal, she said that it was to NOT be anxious before races. In her determination to “not be anxious,” she was--you guessed it--more anxious. This is for a few reasons: 1) trying NOT to do something often makes it harder not to do something, and 2)...

...anxiety often brings cousins, like worry and doubt, which render us powerless and can cause more anxiety.

5 Tools for the Toolbox

Here are five tools to manage anxiety and shift your focus that I’ve found helpful with clients.

Consider that, in the end, these tools are acts of self-kindness that can bring reassurance, and the anxious athlete sure could use a bit of that.

1) I Choose

What is it? A short activity that eliminates distractions and empowers focus.

Who's it for? People who have trouble with longer mindfulness activities or have a short amount of time to get ready.

How to do it: With eyes closed, use a series of phrases like the following, and pause a few seconds between each: “I choose to feel my breath. I choose to focus on a sound near me. I choose to focus on a sound farther away. I choose to focus on my back against the chair. I choose to feel my feet on the floor.

Clients say: “I really like a feeling of control, and this gives me that. Being able to control my focus and tune out distractions is the shot of confidence I need going into a match.”

Variations: Practice this progression first in a quiet space, then at workouts, and then in a competition setting to build focus.

2) Dialing it Down

What is it? A cue to manage energy.

Who’s it for? People who respond to visual signals.

How to do it: Imagine there is a small dial in front of you from 1-5 (or 1-10). When you feel your energy getting out of control, dial it down either in your mind or actually using your hand. If your emotional response is a feeling of sluggishness, dial it up. It you need to chill out, take it all the way down.

Clients say: “Emotional control for me was about matching my energy to the situation. When I’m getting ready to compete, I physically use my hand in the air in front of me to dial it down from a 5 to a solid 3. Then my breathing and focus changes with it.”

Variations: Share this strategy with a teammate and give them permission to give you the dial-it-down cue when you need it, or try these other visualization strategies.

3) Mindful Alerts

What is it: Smart phone reminders to take a mindful moment.

Who's it for: People who interact with their phone a lot. (Like, everybody).

How to do it: Set a daily alarm on your phone with its own name and gentle ringtone to remind you to do something like, “take 3 deep breaths,” or, “relax your shoulders.”

Clients say: “The first time my alert went off, I took a deep breath, and my shoulders went down. That showed me how much energy I was burning up on any given day just being tense. Now it’s like I have a ringtone in my head that reminds me to shake it out.”

Variations: Instead of using your alarm, set up calendar alerts at different times throughout the week that pop up on your phone or device. That way, a sound is not interrupting whatever is going on around you, like a class or a meeting.

4) Body Scan

What is it: A mindfulness practice that brings your focus on the breath and the body.

Who's it for: Everybody.

How to do it: Sit in a comfortable position with your back against a chair, hands and feet uncrossed, and your eyes closed. Gradually breathe slowly and deeply into your belly, and notice thoughts come and go. Bring your awareness to your right foot, notice any tension there and say, “relax and let it go.” Do this for your ankle, calf, knee, and tupper leg. Then go to your left foot and work your way up. Check in with hips, back, abs, shoulders, jaw, or wherever else in your body your attention brings you. Stay open and curious as you notice and soften. Treat yourself to about 30-40 minutes of this at one sitting.

Clients say: “It was like there was nothing in my head after. Everything was quiet. It was such a relief.”

Variations: Check out this great post on an effective breathing technique, or use an app like Headspace or Calm as your guide on the daily path of mindfulness.

5) Collaging

What is it? Cutting out and glueing pictures on a page.

Who's it for? Artful types.

How to do it: In magazines find a variety of images and/or words that represent both the weight of anxiety, and when you are at your best. Use words, images, objects like a bib number, and markers to tap into your creative side while enjoying the process of processing your anxiety.

Clients say: “The process of making the collage helped me step back and get some needed distance from what I was experiencing. Anxiety was less scary and more just this thing that I needed to manage. I feel like I now have choices of what to do about it.”

Variations: If collaging is not your thing, try journaling either in an actual book or sending yourself text messages. Just remember, create, read, reflect.

Meg Waldron has her Masters in Sport Psychology and works with athletes to help them recover joy in success in sport. A long-time sport coach, Meg was a high school All-American track athlete and competed full scholarship in college. She brings 14 years of school teaching to her work.

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