Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Embrace the Stress

Ah stress.  It can be debilitating for people who suffer with it, both for themselves and their dogs.  But the interesting thing about stress is that it's not the stress itself that's the problem but rather a person's belief about the stress.  A study found that people with a lot of stress in their lives and a belief that stress is harmful had a 43% increase in their risk of dying prematurely.  However those who had a lot of stress in their lives but didn't believe that stress is harmful had no more risk of dying and in fact had even less risk than those with light stress.  The mind is a powerful beast.

That's fascinating and all but how does this apply to agility?  Well what if we could turn stress around, make it an asset by changing our belief about our stress?  If you're currently struggling with ring nerves you're probably standing outside the ring with any number of physical symptoms - rapid heart beat, breathing fast, butterflies in the stomach, feeling shaky, gotta pee, sweating, nausea, anxiety, etc.  Maybe these symptoms start sooner than ringside - while you're driving to the trial or even the day before.  Most of us interpret these physical symptoms of stress as signs of trouble, that we're not coping well with the situation, that things will go badly.  But instead what if we interpreted these physical symptoms as our body preparing ourselves for the challenge we're about to face?

This is me at Xterra Nationals in 2013 (off road triathlon nationals).

This was the year of the devastating floods in Boulder (and surrounding areas) and I was unable to train for about 3 weeks before the race.  I didn't get my car back from the shop until 2 days before the race (a necessary part was delayed because of flooded roads) so I had to do the 7 1/2 hour drive the day before.  No time to pre-ride the course or swim in the reservoir.  I was stiff from the long car ride.  And honestly my mind was elsewhere.  On top of it all I'd had to put down my 15 year old dog the day the rains started and I'd lost my grandmother who raised me about 3 weeks before that.

Standing on that start line I was a bundle of nerves.  The swim is a mass start which means 350 people jump into the water at once and start thrashing around.  You can get kicked, smacked, goggles knocked off, etc.  None of the regular season Xterras have a start like this and though I tried to prepare by entering some open water swims the biggest start was maybe 90 people.  I hadn't been in the open water for 3 weeks or so and the water temp. was significantly warmer at that time so I wasn't acclimated to swimming in the colder water.  These were hardly ideal conditions.

But as I stood on that start line and felt the tingly shakiness, rapid heart beat, butterflies flitting I told myself that these things were an energy, they were making me stronger, preparing me for the long day ahead.  They were going to help me go faster, be stronger, be more mentally alert.  They were a gift, a strength, something to embrace.

And it worked.  I got through the swim no problem, no panicking, I felt strong, energized.  I got out of the water excited for the rest of the race.  I didn't have a fabulous race due to all the factors mentioned already but this was due to things I couldn't control (lack of training, long car ride, etc.), not because I was stressed.  And though it wasn't a great result I was very happy with my performance given the limiters.  I put in the best race I could with the conditions I had.

So it goes for agility.  What if that rapid heartbeat is going to help you move faster, have better reflexes, get that front cross in?  What if the shakiness is making you more mentally alert so that you can easily remember the course?  What if the butterflies in your stomach are energizing you, pushing you to rise to the challenge?

Another reason to embrace stress is that it serves as a pre-cursor to the flow state, ie that state of high performance where you're fully immersed in what you're doing.  Flow is a wonderful thing but in order to get to it you first have to experience stress.  The neurobiology of the flow state is fascinating but I don't want to send people to snozzling with the details.  The important thing to know is that the adrenaline rush that sends your heart to pounding is a good thing because you have to go through it to get to flow.  For more details on this I refer you to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his book, 'Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience'  and Steven Kotler and his book, 'The Rise of Superman'.  I plan to write more about flow in the future so stay tuned for that.  Anyway, the take home point here is that you can view the appearance of stress hormones as important and necessary cues for flow.  Get through the initial unpleasantness and you'll be handsomely rewarded.

Now certainly there's value in learning how to calm yourself down.  There are many techniques for this and I've written about them before in my Clean Run article and this blog.  But there are times when embracing the stress can be beneficial so why not play around with it?  Come up with your own re-frames and metaphors.  Be creative.  Use that nervous energy to your advantage.

Mr. Bundle of Nervous Energy himself

This post is part of Dog Agility Blog Event Day.  For more posts on 'Stress' click here.

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