In the fitness world, we call them plateaus. In the world of athletics, we call them slumps, but any reduction in performance is stressful. In fact, it could be stress that is causing a lack of performance or focus in your job, sports, fitness levels, and even relationships. Whether we call it over-training or being over-stressed, what it primarily comes down to is lack of recovery. Having discipline to rest and be engaged, and being self-aware enough to know you need to actively pursue recovery are the keys to dealing with stress, anxiety and the performance drops it can cause.
Stress comes from everywhere and is not a bad thing in certain doses. Stress helps us focus on the little things and puts us in a 'fight or flight response' when situations get serious. It is our survival tool – it helps us perform in competition as well as survival. Let’s face it: life is a competition for survival, so it is important to understand what happens to us physiologically when we are stressed and anxious. And yes, you can accumulate too much stress and see physiological and psychological issues start to form.
Often, people who are used to performing at a certain level of excellence at work, athletics, academics, and fitness scores can overthink why they are failing to reach previously achieved marks. This can add to their problem by adding anxiety to future performance (games, tests, assessment, selections, projects, and presentations to name a few).
This is anxiety as defined by the MedicalNewToday.com: 'Anxiety – a generally used term for nervousness, fear, apprehension and worry.' Anxiety is quite normal if you are taking a test and may manifest itself with butterflies, sweaty palms, cold hands. Anxiety is considered a problem when it interferes with your ability to sleep, performance, or just function as normal and just cannot seem to 'turn your brain off'. Physiologically speaking anxiety is REAL. Even though the stress hormones are created simply by thinking, they are the same stress hormones you have when you are placed into a life and death situation.
You are not crazy! Stress caused by anxiety is really anything that disturbs our habits as we like to stay in a state of homeostasis and safety. We are all creatures of habit. Take a look at your daily routines from when you first wake up until you go to bed. There are hundreds of habits and routines we have from what we do, what we eat, what we drink, the path we travel, you name it. Anything that throws us off of our habits as well as our expected levels of performance causes stress which can add to our anxiety levels when we are called to perform again.
Some Tips to Help Deal with Stress and Anxiety
Name It and Tame It
This skill requires some level of self-awareness. It’s right out of sports psychology 101, learned from a stress mitigation and optimal performance coaching company called the Magis Group who works with military, police, fire-fighters and business and sports professionals. The next time you have a feeling of anxiousness, stress, or general uneasiness, give it a name. For instance, prior to giving a presentation to a group of people, I am always nervous complete with butterflies and sweaty palms, I call it 'pre-game jitters.' The act of simply giving that stress response a name actually does reduce some of the nervousness. Breathing deeply helps too.
Some of the best advice I have ever received when having to perform under stress during SEAL training (post-BUDS) was to breathe. Take a deep breath (full inhale) pause for a second and slowly exhale. Repeat several times if needed, but usually it just requires one to help you gather your focus and get a job done.
Make a List
If your brain cannot shut off at the end of the day because you keep thinking about everything you have to do tomorrow, make a list. Write everything down in a notebook (keep one by the bed) that is on your mind and title the page – TO DO LIST TOMORROW. This will help organize the thoughts in your head and reduce the obtrusive ones from popping up out of nowhere when you are trying to sleep.
These are also called Cue Statements. Especially if you are in a slump or plateau, you can overthink what is going wrong and stress out even more, over-practice, get tired, burn out, and lose your focus. Instead of trying to analyze it and doing too much, simply think back when everything was clicking for you. What was your best moment on the field, at work, on a test, or at even at home? Take yourself back to those moments and think about that 'pick 6 touchdown in overtime' or a 'walk-off homerun' or an A+ on a final exam! Whatever you have excelled at, go to that moment. Remember how it made you feel – slapping high fives and hearing the crowd cheer. Take it all in. Give it a name like game time, bust it, or let’s do this. Put yourself in that state of performance.
These skills take practice but you can experience them every day since life is stressful. You have to have some internal awareness in order to deal with whatever stresses you though. Whether real stress or imagined, it is still stress hormones that require you to deal with them. Try these skills along with getting better sleep, eating healthy, hydrating enough, and working out to naturally metabolize your stress.
Stew Smith works as a presenter / editorial board with the Tactical Strength and Conditioning program of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). There are also over 800 articles on Military.com Fitness Forum focusing on a variety of fitness, nutritional, and tactical issues military members face throughout their career.