Posted in Life as Sport

Managing Anxiety

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The following is an excerpt from the book Life as Sport, by Dr. Jonathan Fader. 

The video is hilarious—unless you’re me.

It starts with me in the parking lot, raising my fists like I’ve just won the heavyweight championship of the world. You can hear the wind hard across the camera’s microphone and see the tall grass in the open airfield behind me getting blown horizontal.

In the next scene I’m looking a little less confident as I’m getting strapped into some skydiving equipment. My eyes are darting around as the jump coordinator yanks hard on the parachute straps to make sure I’m secure. Next I’m walking onto the tarmac toward the airplane. I’ve gone completely pale, as if the blood has drained from my body. My friend, who is filming, keeps trying to get me to respond to questions, but all I can manage is a weak smile and a halfhearted wave

Next I’m walking onto the tarmac toward the airplane. I’ve gone completely pale, as if the blood has drained from my body. My friend, who is filming, keeps trying to get me to respond to questions, but all I can manage is a weak smile and a halfhearted wave

In the last shot I’m on the plane and we’re in the air. I’m strapped to the jump coordinator, and the door to the plane slides open to reveal the blue sky. I turn to the camera to try to say something glib, but no words come out. I’m sweating, and I look like I’m about to throw up.

The sensations I experienced during my first skydive are the perfect example of “biological alarm.” Our bodies are built with an automatic internal regulating system (the sympathetic nervous system) that works very much like a sensitive smoke detector. It’s designed to go off if there’s the slightest hint of a “fire,” which, in evolutionary terms, is something that could cause physical harm. For our ancestors “fire” might have been a predator like a lion in close proximity, and the alarm system primed the body to go into red-alert mode—blood pumping extra oxygen to the brain and muscles to make fast decisions and quick movements. It prepared humans to either run away or confront an attack in the classic “fight or flight” response.

That alarm system has been our friend for thousands of years in the sense that it has helped our ancestors identify danger and is one of the main reasons we still exist as a species. After all, if we didn’t have this alarm system, the lion would have eaten us—or our ancestors, that is! But there’s one problem with it: it doesn’t do a good job of separating real threats from perceived ones.

In many of the situations you might face on a playing field or in a conference room you’re challenged by very real fear. But your body responds to that fear as it would if you were under physical attack, not in proportion to the size of the threat.

If you miss a free throw or make a mistake during a presentation, it is extremely unlikely you will die. But your body doesn’t necessarily always see it that way.

Anxiety is the residue of that alarm system doing its job. We’ve evolved that way because the penalty of ignoring a physical threat to our safety is very severe. So we’re wired with a “negative bias”—we pay way more attention to what could go wrong and hurt us than what is safe. That can make managing your emotions in a competitive situation far more challenging.

Download the full excerpt here.