Forgetting Stress

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.  

 

References:

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

How many mindsets do you have?

Before we delve into today’s topic, ask yourself this question: how many mindsets do you have?

What I mean by mindset is how you handle a situation—how you approach, address, and attack a task at hand. For instance, an athlete typically frames a workout in terms of focus areas, levels of exertion, and desired outcomes. In an office setting, a person may perceive a business presentation in terms of similar aforementioned qualities.

Often, we have more than one mindset when it comes to a workout or a presentation. Athletes often have a mindset for practice and training, another for local competitions, and one for major competitions. This same-tiered approach can be applied to the workplace: a mindset for routine operations, a mindset for a presentation to a supervisor, and another one for a corporate presentation.

Each mindset is independent, encouraging us to train and focus our energy in a manner that differs from another related mindset, yet we expect the same outcome from each mindset in the end. We expect all of our multiple athletic mindsets to merge toward personal bests and podium wins. We expect that our approach to a routine presentation will be just as successful as the corporate presentation. But thinking this way sets us up for error and disappointment.

When you have your mind trained and focused in one way and expect it to magically process information differently in another setting, problems are almost guaranteed to arise.

For instance, most of our athletic careers are spent in practice and training. If we practice in a relaxed environment, we grow accustomed to that environment. Our focus may not be present, our energy may be low, and we may take for granted the multiple opportunities we have to re-attack misses and correct mistakes. We don’t necessarily learn from our failures because we’re in a state where we can always try again. And we may even take this mindset with us to low-key competitions where we may not place much merit in our abilities and fall back into a relaxed state of mind.

But this environment we create is uncontested, comfortable, and forgiving. It is not conducive to competition.

By maintaining a relaxed state in practice and even low-level events, we set ourselves up for disappointment at major competitions. Our focus is awry since we are out of the training ground and thrust into a competitive environment, which causes us to second-guess our abilities, our training, and our chances of victory. And any failures or anxieties we experience are explained away through a variety of excuses (e.g., “I was fatigued,” “My training was off,” “I’m just not having a good day”), all the while ignoring the exuberant differences between how we approach training and competition.

The relaxed mindset from practice leaves us woefully unprepared for the pace and drive of competition. We get one chance (vice multiple chances) to achieve a lift in competition. We have one opportunity to attain a personal best in an event—not two, three, or four. But we give ourselves an indefinite amount of resources in the form of time and attempts in practice, and we expect the same results on the competition ground.

Many of us do this. Many of us have multiple mindsets that we apply as appropriate within the gym and our workspaces. We view practice (or routine work) and competition (or major projects) as separate entities that require different approaches; however, we should consider tackling them in the same manner.

Note that mindsets are easy to form and resistant to change. Yet, with time and focus, we can become more efficient and better prepared, regardless of the working environment.

This is how you consolidate your various mindsets into one streamlined strategy:

  1. Start focusing on how you practice. Ask yourself if the way you practice is the same way you compete. Pick a friend and compete against them, then reflect on how you approached and tackled that situation. Was it fun or were you serious? Where was your mind? How did the event affect your athletic performance?
  2. Identify gaps in your practice. Search out the items you notice in competition that seem absent in practice sessions. Consider your breathing and heart rate—how do they differ between environments? How can you recreate the same sensation in practice as in competition? Also, consider allowing yourself to fail in practice to mimic competition (e.g., provide a cutoff time for attempts or allow only a handful of attempts). Then you can truly learn from those misses and return the next day fresh to attack.
  3. Develop a plan. Take the lessons learned from the previous steps and integrate those elements that need work into your training or competition plan in a slow and deliberate manner. (If you try to integrate change too fast, you’ll become overwhelmed and be less apt to maintain that plan.) If there is no urgency in your practice, take steps to increase the rate of exertion. Find what’s uncomfortable and embrace it. (Because growth happens in the uncomfortable.)

The old adage of “train like you fight” is something we should be embracing in our sport or even our workspaces. If we prepare for our proverbial wars—the competition field or the corporate presentation—in a manner that is exceedingly different than what we will encounter, then we are failing to prepare ourselves effectively.

Again, ask yourself how many mindsets you have in your sport, in your work, or in whatever field you wish to conquer. If the answer is more than one, work to merge your training and competitive approaches into a consolidated plan of attack.

 

The Three Things You Should Be Doing at the Gym

This is not an article advising which movements, what rep schemes, or how much cardio you should incorporate into your gym program. The “perfect program” doesn’t exist because focus, goals, and fitness levels vary between athletes. But while the physical aspects of our training differ, the mental aspects are surprisingly similar.

They also translate across sports.

To a degree, we are all guilty of allowing our situations to control us—whether those conditions involve tangible items or the demeaning whispers from our subconscious. And when we find ourselves engulfed by situation, we tend to lose focus. We begin to doubt our abilities and perceive ourselves as failures. To reverse becoming a victim of circumstance, start doing these three things at each gym session: remove distractions, accept your emotions, and focus on the present.

1. Remove all distractions. What I mean is you need to put away your tech—your phone, tablet, or whatever device that may distract your focus. The post-Digital age has been revolutionary in terms of information sharing and connectivity; however, when we bring  technology into the gym, we become more concerned with what is happening in the virtual world than in the present. In scrolling through social media, we are likely to compare ourselves to others: we see our failures against their achievements, which feeds our frustrations and dilutes our performance. In receiving text messages or emails, we may have the urge to respond immediately, finding ourselves either caught in an enduring conversation or the opposite: hoping the other person emails or texts back. Even using our technology to record our workouts can be a distraction, especially as many of us are prone to focus on the immediate review of the exercise or the differences between past and present performance. Technology pulls us from the now into another time, another place—anywhere except where we need to be at that moment.

Removing distractions will enhance your awareness and clear your mind, allowing you to focus on the workout and the experience—the reason you’re at the gym in the first place.

2. Accept your emotions. When failure or fear appears, we typically take two approaches: we allow the emotion to consume or control us, or we attempt to bury it and ignore it. Unfortunately, neither of these options are effective. We obviously want to avoid feeding negative emotions, but suppressing them can be just as harmful. Instead, we can unearth our emotions, study them, and use them to enhance our training.

Emotions as Guideposts. We can use our emotions to help guide our training methods. For instance, frustration with a workout may indicate that we are pushing ourselves too hard, that our focus is not where it should be, or that our desired outcome is not necessarily feasible at our current level of fitness. Instead of driving that frustration into the ground—in essence, burying it and ignoring it—we should change our perspective, reflect on the situation, and consider why that emotion may be present. And if you’re not in the state to reflect, move on and work on something else. Continuing to feed that frustration isn’t going to help you improve.

Emotions as Teaching Mechanisms. We often find it difficult to acknowledge our emotions during less-than-stellar performances. We believe that accepting our emotions means we’ve given up and are doomed to fail. In reality, recognition allows us to move forward and even use the experience as a learning point. If we can identify the causes for our emotions, we can develop solutions to address them, build upon them, and thrive. Experience is a great teacher, and these perceived failures are opportunities we can use to grow as athletes.

Emotions as Motivation. In addition to learning from our emotions, we can also use them as an unconventional form of motivation. When we approach a new experience, such as a new trail, a new PR attempt, or a competition, several emotions may arise—namely fear and anxiety—and may cause us to question our abilities. While the temptation is to suppress these emotions, this action allows them to linger and gnaw at our thoughts, encouraging error or ruining the experience altogether. Instead, we should accept the emotions, challenge them, and include them in our sport. We can turn fear of a competition into a heightened sense of focus, and the challenge can be reimagined as an opportunity for success. In essence, we can take a negative and turn it into a positive. Work on developing your own strategy for tackling fears, and you’ll be better prepared to overcome them when they arise.

The adage of turning life’s lemons into lemonade applies heavily in the case of emotions. How a situation unfolds is less important than how we react to it. There will be negatives and positives that occur during our training sessions, but we can leverage even the worst experiences to reflect, assess, and grow.

3. Focus on the present. As athletes, we are often caught moving between where we were before or what we hope to become. We linger on the achievements of yesterday and hope for the successes of tomorrow, but existing in any state save the present will lead to disappointment.

When we exist in the past, we compare our current situation to a previous one (e.g., “I made that lift last time. There’s no reason I should be failing today.”). While this thought process may not appear damaging, it allows doubt to consume us. We begin to doubt our capabilities as athletes, and we may even lose motivation to continue. Living in the past may be especially damaging to athletes suffering or returning from injury: the urge is strong to reach previous levels of performance, but returning to those levels takes time.

Similarly, when we exist in the future, we create expectations for ourselves and rely on the happiness that should be realized in achieving that outcome; however, we fail to experience the motions and processes that lead to that outcome—i.e., the work. Furthermore, we arrive at the previous expectation, only to realize that expectation—that marker of success—has moved forward. We are left unsatisfied, burned out, and with little room for celebration. Granted, we’ve grown, but we’ve been so focused on what we wanted to be instead of enjoying what is.

The present has the potential to be amazing, but with the constant shifts of focus and comparisons, what we see isn’t always glamorous.  When we recognize that our current state of mind is the present, we start seeing action and growth occur—where our work has lead and will lead to more achievements. By focusing our energies on the present, we become aware of our developments, appreciate our achievements, and are ultimately happier in the process.

During your next gym session, consider applying these principles. Remove the distractions—both the technological and the mental—and focus on the present. And when emotions attempt to consume you, buckle down and make some lemonade.

Cognitive fatigue and how it affects our performance.

Cognitive fatigue is subjective to each individual person, yet has a common ground amongst everyone. This commonality is the decline in our overall performance when you are highly stressed or an activity happens over an extended period of time.   Our mind and body start to show emotional instability and moods become altered, which translates into sluggishness, constantly tired, negative affect, and animosity towards tasks or goals.

These characteristics are brutal towards the individual attempting to be prosperous. When the above symptoms start to show, what do you do? Normally our society states that you need to push through it, hide it, and get over it. So you tuck these thoughts and emotions away, in what you think is a deep spot of our mind. If you continue to do this behavior, the fatigue will continue to build. As it builds, the next time a person comes across a task, or a memory that represents what they are avoiding/hiding, one will find themselves sliding quickly back into the cognitive fatigue mindset. You identified some common signs and symptoms of cognitive fatigue, as well as the commonality in which you as a society handle it. So how does cognitive fatigue set in and what does it do to us mentally.

Our mind is a fickle thing. When you perceive a task as being strenuous you start to enter cognitive fatigue. While entering this stage you start to feel fatigued, tired, and emotionally drained, however the changes in our body are a raised heart rate and blood lactate (increase of lactic acid in our blood stream)(MacMahon, Schucker, Hagemann &Strauss, 2014). Meaning what you perceive as a higher level of effort in work or athletics is purely mental. When cognitive fatigue controls our mentality, our thoughts also start to change. Meaning that what you see as difficult currently might be viewed as an impossible task later down the road. Enjoyment disappears task becomes a grudge to accomplish as you feel you no longer receive anything out of that task. The scary part is that when you are put in this position you feel the only fix is to jump to and from programs, different careers, and/or relationships (to name a few). People think that a change of scenery/pace will fix the slump they are in. When what they truly need to focus on is their own mentality and how to handle fatigue.

The longer cognitive fatigue sets in, the more your focus starts to be brought internal. Your focuses shift from the barbell, to your breathing or what you are thinking. Physical senses start to govern your awareness and performance. Pain and disappointment easily creep in. This is where it can get tricky, as without proper understanding of how to control this internal shift, the focus of pain and disappointment will control your sessions. Focus will continue to jump from one negative aspect to the next, furthering the cognitive dissonance with-in your body. Since internal stimuli are an important part of being human, it is important to use that stimuli and restructure it so one can break through the cognitive fatigue.

So how do you break this cycle? Well, it is different for everyone, and the easy answer is to not lose sight of the “fun”. The long answer involves two parts. The first is changing how you view yourself and your sport/career. Ask yourself what are you trying to achieve and how you are going about achieving it. If you can answer the first part but cannot answer the how, then you are going about it the wrong way. No wonder you are fatigued. Lets revisit the goal you are trying to achieve. Break it down. Good, now break it down again and again, until you can look at it and the simplicity takes over and you do not have to explain any of the steps to yourself. Now pick one of these new perspectives and get started.

The second is learning how to identify what your internal stimuli are. When you find yourself struggling with negative thoughts, write them down. For each negative thought you show, write down three positives. This is the easiest reprograming you can do. The only stipulation, stick with it.