Everyone views and manages stress in their own unique way. One person may view stress as missing a bus; another may define stress as not one but the accumulation of several events. Some of us conquer these obstacles with ease, whereas others crumble amid adversity. But despite the variance between our views and methods, there are two common factors that we must consider when facing stress: mind wandering and cortisol.
Mind wandering is when one’s thoughts shift away from a current task to another topic, and it most often involves personal goals or concerns. While we are prone to mind wandering in some form or another (e.g., zoning out while driving), it is one of the worst things an athlete can do while experiencing adversity in the gym.
When dealing with a stressful situation, mind wandering offers us the opportunity to escape our current predicament; however, it does so at the expense of task completion and performance. It takes us out of the present and focuses our attention to past or future events. As previously mentioned (see “The Three Things You Should Be Doing at the Gym” – published 21 August 2017), failing to ground ourselves in the present allows for negativity and doubt to creep in—especially since we cannot control anything outside of the present. The more we find ourselves focused on what was or what could be, the more likely we will experience heightened anxiety, leading to reduced performance in high-pressure situations and cognitive tasks (Beilock, 2008).
In addition to mind wandering, cortisol also poses a threat to our performance if not managed correctly. Biologically speaking, our adrenal glands release cortisol in response to stress as part of the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism; however, this reaction not only impair
our memory but also increases our propensity to distraction and mind wandering (Elzinga & Roelofs, 2005). This situation has the potential to lock us into a dangerous cycle: stress leads to heightened cortisol levels, which lead to a loss of control, which increases anxiety and—therefore—exacerbates our stress.
Once our level of stress reaches a peak, our working memory, which is responsible for decision making and controlling our attention, will shut down to defend against stress-related impairments. In essence, our working memory does the only thing it can to enact a semblance of control amid despair: it allows our mind to wander. This process refocuses our attention and energy elsewhere, it is only a temporary solution. It is worth noting that decreased performance is not always the result of this reaction, but the combination of increased cortisol levels, anxiety, and stress detract from our end goal: success.
Stress (and cortisol) in manageable doses can be a performance enhancer, specifically in terms of building resiliency; however, taken to an extreme, stress and its associates (i.e., mind wandering and cortisol) have the potential to severely degrade our performance, our experience, and our attitude.
So how do we address stress?
Identifying and controlling stress outright may not be feasible since it typically involves a combination of factors, and the same issues apply to managing cortisol levels. But let’s focus on what we can control: mind wandering.
The inability to concentrate on a task or stay grounded in a moment—inadvertently moving toward past or future thoughts—is indicative of mind wandering. Upon realization of the activity, we first need to consider our mental status: What is our current level of anxiety and how is that level affecting our thoughts? Where is our attention focused? Why are we thinking these thoughts? Do we feel stressed, distracted, or pulled away from the present?
Resolving these questions may help reveal the cause of our mind wandering. For instance, an athlete engaged in a particularly difficult training session may be more fixated on what is happening later in the day than a current task. This lack of presence may create frustration with the training session or anxiety when developing future tasksl. However, the lack of focus increases opportunities for error, which contributes to decreased performance and increased stress—feeding the vicious cycle.
In addition to identifying the act of mind wandering, we need to develop a process for pulling ourselves back into the present. This process requires us to consider what is in our control and to believe that we can control the situation. In the example above, the athlete could search for lessons or positives associated with the training. A frustration caused by improper technique may mean the athlete should spend the session working a basic element to refine technique, letting other frustration go. Something the athlete can control, learn from, and view positively. In this manner, the athlete’s attention reverts from a focus on external factors to internal, allowing them to control present state.
Stress is not something we can avoid or try to bury. We all fall prey to mind wandering, anxiety, and even degraded mental states; however, dealing with stress is less about avoidance and more about developing effective approaches to handle it. Specifically, if we can identify the present stressors and redirect ourselves before stress becomes unmanageable, we can use that stress as a performance enhancer.
Banks, J. B., Tartar, J. L., & Tamayo, B. A. (2015). Examining factors involved in stress-related working memory impairments: Independent or conditional effects? Emotion, 15(6), 827–836. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000096
Beilock, S. L. (2008). Math performance in stressful situations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17, 339–343. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00602.x
Elzinga, B. M., & Roelofs, K. (2005). Cortisol-induced impairments of working memory require acute sympathetic activation. Behavioral Neuroscience, 119, 98–103. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0735-7044.119.1.98