Controlling Anxiety During Lifting

Posted on 28 Jan 2010 16:30

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Much of the Getting in the Zone series of articles are focused on areas of sport psychology. Having psychologists help athletes perform better is a relatively new thing. While I have drawn from that, as I read some of the articles on this subject (controlling anxiety, etc) from sport psychologists, I wonder if many of them really "get it". Sure they understand the statistics and have a background in the psychology affecting performance, but have they ever been there? Do they know what it feels like? I read with interest an article in the "Mind Games" section of the NSCA's performance training journal by Suzie Tuffey Riewald entitled "Help, I'm Nervous". It's related, of course to my Getting in the Zone series of articles.

This article deals with feelings of nervousness or anxiety and the somatic anxiety symptoms that accompany that, which the author also refers to as 'bodily anxiety'.

She points out, as I did in the zone articles, that anxiety isn't always bad for performance, but unfortunately:

"it is often the case that when an athlete experiences anxiety, or nervousness before a competition, he or she automatically thinks, “oh no, I am nervous—this isn’t good. Things are going to end badly.”

Absolutely. Right on the money. It isn't so much the anxiety in itself in this case but our reaction to it or interpretation of it. In fact this is a much better view of stress in general, suited to the "Transactional Model of Stress" which places more emphasis on the individuals perception of the demand placed on them by the environment as well as their mode of thought, their behavioral tendencies, and their capacity for action.

The author makes a number of good suggestions for dealing with performance robbing anxiety. However, there are a number of common misunderstandings at work. I think they are important enough to lay out here in a separate article, which I will include as an appendix article to the zone series.

1. Think Back

The idea that an athlete should first "think back" to past performances and figure out "what levels of anxiety" were good for performance and what levels were bad. This would entail examining what they felt prior to a good performance or what they were thinking. Then compare that to poor performance trying to find a "pattern" between nervousness and poor performance.

Are you getting the idea here? You are supposed to go through a complicated mental process to SEEK out the "perfect" level of nervousness! If this sounds cumbersome and downright impossible..that's because it is.

The problem is with the idea that not all anxiety is bad and that some level of anxiety is conducive to an optimal level of personal arousal and therefore good performance. This is true to some extent. But it is a leap of logic to assume that one must therefore tune their anxiety like a radio!

I hate quoting myself but since this is related to/contrasted with the Getting in the Zone series I need to include some excerpts for purposes of explanation.

In Getting in the Zone IV, I stated:

"Over-focusing on one emotional response or trigger tends to divert attention to a self-consciousness appraisal of our emotional state. Instead of a healthy 'self-awareness' or 'mindfullness' we have rumination or preoccupation."

And in the first article:

"[the heart of flow is] you are aware of what you are doing but not in an examining way. In other words, you are aware but not aware of being aware. You don't think about it; you don't TRY. You just do. The awareness element of flow can be likened to a state of Zen awareness in that it is not a judgmental or analytical state. You do not seek to block or control thoughts but simply let them flow by without judgment or comment, completely aware without SEEKING to be aware."

I should note that those statements are not meant to say that you should not combat things like negative self talk. Of course combat is the wrong word. Most lifters should replace negative talk with positive, goal oriented directives that have been clearly visualized and enhanced through quality repetition, as I discussed in Don't Dwell on Failures. This is a much more straight-forward directive than "seek your Goldi-Locks moment". Which will have you tied up in a knot, most likely.

Given those statements and the idea of not "dwelling" on nervousness above, perhaps you can see that trying to tune or control anxiety is really just a systematic version of the very same mental process. Not many people with anxiety problems will be able to exert some type of control over it by a complicated mental trick. The "trying" and "striving" to tune your anxiety will just result in more anxiety or mental diversion.

I have a hard enough time getting people to squat and deadlift right. I don't think having them "determine the optimal levels of anxiety" for themselves is in the cards.

Instead of trying to turn a mental dial back and forth until you get just the right volume of anxiety, you must first learn to turn the knob all the way to the left. In other words, one must first learn to RELAX completely. Which leads us to the next fallacy:

2. Somatic Versus Cognitive Anxiety

The author separates somatic (bodily anxiety) from cognitive (mental) anxiety and suggest that some may be more bothered by one or the other:

"If you are more plagued by the physical (somatic) manifestations of anxiety your pre-competition goals should focus on calming your body using such skills as stretching, moving around, so as not to get tight, light massage or deep, controlled breathing.

When mental (cognitive) anxiety tends to be excessive, your goal should be to calm the mind—effective skills include using positive self-talk, focusing on process goals (as opposed to outcome goals), distracting oneself so as not to think about being worried and reminding oneself of past successes to build confidence."

The problem here is the idea that there is a such thing as bodily anxiety and that this is what somatic anxiety is. The body can be physiologically activated by anxiety but ALL anxiety is MENTAL. Somatic anxiety is not the bodily manifestations of anxiety, as the author states, but is one PERCEPTION of those manifestations.

Let me explain it in simple terms. If a bear is chasing you through the woods you will experience what is called state anxiety which is made up of two components, cognitive and somatic anxiety.

Cognitive state anxiety is the mental component of anxiety and is caused by negative expectations about success or about negative self-evaluation.1. This is the "thinking" part of anxiety in which we engage in negative self-talk about the chances of failure or success and we fear the consequences of failure.

Somatic state anxiety is the physiological and affective elements of the anxiety experience that develops directly from autonomic arousal.2 This is our "bodily experience" of the physiological changes brought about by anxiety.

The fallacy here is viewing what goes on in the body as somehow separate from the mind. When we attempt to relax the body through massage or deep breathing our purpose is to relax the mind. When we use techniques to relax the mind, our purpose is to relax the body. In other words, a relaxed mind means a relaxed body and vice versa. One cannot exist in the other. You can't be completely chilled and tense at the same time!

Now, putting one and two above together we come to another problem. Are we really that accurate when it comes to our self-report of our anxiety experience? What if we have high TRAIT anxiety? What if we are habitually tense? The psychological changes that accompany a high anxiety state can make our perceptions of physiological change quite inaccurate. We may be quite unaware of just how tense our muscles are, how fast our heart is beating, etc. and so on. If you are like most other people in the modern world you are experiencing a certain degree of inappropriate muscle tension right now and are not even aware of it.

Right now, then, at this moment, your "anxiety experience" may not be all that "in tune". It is unrealistic, then, to think one can use hindsight to find the 'perfect storm' of arousal in some far in the past moment. Especially since for those of us that are actually out there DOING it, such moments come in an endless stream and blend together. In reality, "Rudy" moments are rare. We don't get a swelling horn section and nobody carries us off the field on their backs.

And the recipe fits only the competitive athlete who probably has a few stand out moments to draw on, both good and bad. Even then only a relative few are likely to stick out, giving a poor sampling from which to draw data. And even if you could remember the Goldilocks moment, you couldn't just snap your fingers and recreate it.

All the techniques talked about above are about achieving a certain degree of momentary relaxation. The reason so many fail at achieving this is because they have never learned to master FULL relaxation.

If you want to be able to control your level of arousal on short notice the first step, therefore, is to first learn to turn the arousal knob down to one. We experience EVERYTHING relative to something else. It is how we categorize the world. As I pointed out in the earlier articles about muscular tension, for instance, the moment you truly recognize what excess tension feels like, is the moment it goes away. Or comes back. Think of it like finally getting a nice new mattress after sleeping on an old lumpy one for years. Suddenly the old mattress seems even worse.

One thing that the article does get right is the difference between being outcome focused and performance focused (task versus outcome orientation). But this is not a switch many people can just turn on and off at will. If you are focusing on the uncertain outcome of an event or a task such as lifting a heavy weight and try to tell yourself "focus on the task" you will simply be concentrating on NOT concentrating on the outcome. This is not how one achieves flow, which is the purpose of all these many articles in the Getting in the Zone series. And whether you are task or outcome oriented may well depend on your attitudes toward the specific activity, meaning that people may not always be only one or the other.

The "easy" cases that just become outcome focused now and again because of a particularly important event or moment are just that…the easy cases. The hard cases are ALWAYS outcome oriented. Even so there is more going on in an athletes mind than just the uncertainty of winning or losing. There are past injuries and current, chronic ones. There is performance anxiety and there is the real world anxiety that follows the athlete onto the field as well.

I think that there is too much focus on perfecting the state of arousal. A perfect solution isn't needed. A working solution is needed that can be slowly improved upon.

This page created 28 Jan 2010 16:30
Last updated 22 Oct 2015 20:43

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