Stress and the Athlete

This is the time of year that stress seems to take its toll on everyone. So, before it gets the best of you, let’s review some of the basics on stress and its effects on you as an athlete.

What is stress?

It is the subjective interpretation of an event by a person. Therefore, in order to perceive something to be stressful you must:

a. perceive an event as threatening (to your physical, mental or emotional well being) and,
b. perceive that you do not have the resources to cope with the event

Stress is individually interpreted, which means an event may be stressful to one person and not another. If there are events that you perceive as highly stressful and perceive that you have the ability or resources to cope with it; then it will not have as dramatic effect on you. So, having and developing coping skills is essential in reducing the effects of stress.

There are a couple established measures of stress. One is “life events” such as death of family member, an illness, police arrest, indebtedness, etc. The other is what is termed “daily hassles”. These are the everyday issues, such as traffic, extra work piled on your desk, unexpected daily events, computers crashing, unchallenging work, running out of milk, forgetting an appointment, etc. Though both life events and daily hassles have been correlated with a higher incidence of injuries, the best predictor of the effects of stress on psychological symptoms and illness is daily hassles. We also know that athletes with a high need to avoid failure or high trait anxiety (For trait anxiety, think like Type-A, nervous and on-edge type personalities.) generally appraise situations as more stressful and consequently experience an elevated stress response. Athletes (or anyone) with high coping resources can mitigate the effects of the stressors. This does not mean they eliminate the effects though.

What is the effect of stress on your body?

The stress response includes gastric problems due to a decreased blood flow to your digestive system. Blood is shunted from your extremities (i.e. cold hands and feet) to your major muscles to ready them for action. And among other effects higher blood pressure, and higher blood glucose as well as increased muscle tension occur. So, your reaction to stress will affect every cell in your body.

Personality +/- Coping Resources + History of Stressors (life events and daily hassles) = Stress Response

So, everyone’s personality and the coping mechanisms possessed (or not possessed) along with our history of stress (lifestyle, major events or daily hassles) will equal our response to stress. However, key to know, is that one’s coping resources (which are learnable) is more influential on the stress-injury relationship.

What effect does stress have on athletes?

The bottom line is this – it is very well researched and documented that higher levels of stress lead to higher risks of injury and illness. This is true for both frequency and severity of those injuries. Among other effects, there is a peripheral vision narrowing, increase in muscle tension and distractibility. These are key to ingredients of injuries in the making.

Regardless of whether the stressors are real or imaginary, your reactions are similar. We each have a biological alarm clock that goes off automatically, whether we want it to or not. This reaction is valuable if you are about to be hit by a car but it has disadvantages if you are trying to settle down and concentrate on your “game”. By knowing what the reactions are, athletes can learn to interpret these responses as being normal and perhaps even beneficial to their performance. For instance, instead of an athlete viewing “nervousness” before a big race as something bad they can begin to think of it as “readiness” to race well.

What do you do about it?

Assessments can give you insights in to the sources of your stressors. The Holmes and Rahe Social Readjustment Scale Rating Scale (SRRS) and the Profile of Mood States (POMS) or the Sport Competition Anxiety Test (SCAT) are assessments available to assess your stress levels. Then, and most importantly, is to develop specific skills in combating the effects of stress. Some simple measures include: deep breathing exercises, using an audible sigh on exhalation, imagery skills, progressive relaxation skills, and meditation. Cognitive approaches include reframing situations, centering, cognitive restructuring and positive self-talk or affirmations.

Some keys to stress management as an athlete

a. Remain well hydrated.
b. Maintain regular sleeping habits. (Did you know that recent research has shown that even a 2-hour nap can reverse the negative effects of a missed night of sleep!)
c. Maintain your glycogen stores. (Your brain runs on carbohydrates and deprivation results in faulty and unclear thinking!)
d. Do not over train. Listen to your body.
e. Maintain good nutrition.
f. Practice stress management techniques.

Not all of these will work all the time; and some (like running to reduce stress) may not be available to you all the time. Think of this list as a tool box. The more tools you master the use of, the better off you will be. If you believe that you would benefit from a stress management assessment or stress management techniques, I have tools available and do work with individuals as well as workshops for organizations.

This is the time of year we think a lot about setting goals. The New Year is upon us. We all look for support in our pursuit of goals as well as handling stress. I want to share that I am thankful for all the support I derive from all of you. There is no doubt you are a key to my success and enjoyment of life. You need to know that your friendship, camaraderie, humor, and support go far beyond running.

I have learned from some others in my life that it’s never too late to say “thank you” or “I appreciate you.” and unfortunately, sometimes it is. Take a moment and thank the important people in your life, before it is too late.

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