How Reducing Anxiety Improves Sports Performance

Anxiety has become a powerful element in athletes' life. Either stress related anxiety, athletic performance anxiety or in general just life events anxiety. It seems like the word “anxiety” is embedded everywhere we turn. So how does one live a healthy life, if even in sports, anxiety makes an appearance again. Is there a way to use it in our favour or is everything lost, and can we do anything to reduce it? Before we answer that question, let's first learn what anxiety is in the first place.

What Is Anxiety?

Anxiety is a natural response to stress and is something that every individual experiences at some point in their lives. It is a feeling of fear, worry, and nervousness about what lies ahead. While it is normal to feel anxious in certain situations, such as before a job interview or giving a presentation, excessive and persistent anxiety can be debilitating and interfere with daily life.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States, affecting around 40 million adults annually. Symptoms of anxiety can range from physical sensations like a racing heart and sweating, to emotional symptoms such as fear and restlessness. It can also manifest in the form of obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors.

Understanding anxiety, its causes, and how to manage it can greatly improve one's quality of life. By recognizing the signs and seeking help when needed, individuals can learn to cope with their anxiety and lead happier, more fulfilling lives.

What Are Signs of Anxiety?

1. Excessive worrying or fear about the future
2. Restlessness or difficulty staying calm
3. Difficulty concentrating or focusing
4. Irritability or mood swings
5. Muscle tension or trembling
6. Trouble sleeping or staying asleep
7. Rapid heartbeat or palpitations
8. Shortness of breath or feeling like you can't catch your breath
9. Sweating or clammy hands
10. Avoidance of certain situations or places. 

Anxiety and Sports

Anxiety has been constantly evaluated through the sports lens as a heavy variable when assessing cardiovascular health. It is no mystery that increased levels of anxiety cause increased risks of coronary heart disease ( al., 2011). In addition, anxiety can affect other body systems necessary to increase performance. For instance, irregular breathing and muscular tension are factors which reduce a runner’s ability to achieve their desired goals (Khan, 2017).

Optimal Performance Hypothesis

Imagine you're about to do something important, like giving a presentation or participating in a competitive sport. The Optimal Performance Hypothesis suggests that there's a sweet spot of stress or excitement where you perform your best (1). If you're too relaxed or not excited enough, you might not do as well because you're not really into it. On the other hand, if you're too stressed or anxious, your performance might suffer because you're overwhelmed.

This is why measuring your anxiety levels before and after a challenging activity can help you find your optimal performance zone. For example, if you are about to go on a run, you can try and ask yourself questions like "Why am I running?" or "Am I going to enjoy this run? If so, how much?" before engaging in the activity. You can then ask yourself after the run "How do I feel after this run?" This exercise can be a real game changer.

Learning to Control Anxiety

Learning to control anxiety can work in two ways. On the one hand, anxiety releasing hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can push an enhanced response of our body when exercising as it channels into our strength, drive and momentum (Tartakovky, 2019).  On the other hand, reduced anxiety helps us enjoy the run and retrieve the health benefits from it, like endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain relief hormones. In addition, reducing our anxiety minimizes the chances of long term cardiovascular disease as well as muscle pain/fatigue. 

Overall, next time you go on a run or are getting ready to play soccer with your friends, take a moment. Try to connect your body and mind, ask yourself some questions and practice some mindfulness exercises. Maybe this time around, you will engage in a run like never before.