Dealing with stress

I race in just a few days at the International Triathlon Union’s World Championships.  The world’s fastest triathletes, all 6500 of us, will descend upon Chicago to see how we stack up against each other.  To say I’m feeling a wee bit stressed would be putting it mildly. 

Everyone knows what stress is and most of us avoid it as much as we can. I personally don’t enjoy the tight feeling in my throat, chest, and back that tell me I’m anxious. And, I could do without the racing heart beat, nighttime wakefulness, extra trips to the bathroom, etc. I experience these feelings whenever I’ve got way too much on my schedule or when I’m preparing for a big event in my life (like my upcoming race). And, I’ve experienced stress regularly for as long as I can remember (I seem to be one of those people who tends to be wired this way…)

Chronic excessive stress is not healthy for our bodies. Research tells us that it can lead to illness of many kinds and can even trigger autoimmune disease.  So, what to do?  I love racing but not the stress. Over the past few years, I’ve come up with some constructive ways to calm down my inner stress mongers so I can enjoy more of what’s actually happening rather than focusing on what-ifs that almost NEVER happen.

Acknowledge the Fear.  Stress is usually a reaction to fear. Fear often comes when we expect something to be scary or painful or because we simply don’t know what to expect.  Our brain sends signals to our body to “get ready: something bad is about to happen.”  Adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol are responsible for the physical symptoms we experience and they are preparing us for “fight or flight.”  By recognizing and acknowledging that fear is behind these symptoms, we can begin to grapple with calming down and face what’s real and what’s simply our brains trying to anticipate the future.  After all, it makes sense to be ready to fight or take flight if there’s an actual bad thing happening to us.  But it serves no purpose at all if we are simply “worrying” that something bad might happen—and more often than not that’s exactly what we are doing.

Reframe Your Viewpoint:  Focus and Look Toward the Positive. More than anything else, I find that this helps me remember what’s important (my family, my health, helping others).  No matter what happens during a race or any other experience, I can usually find something positive to focus on.  So when something unexpected happens as I’m preparing for a race (like an injury or training problem), I try to just let it roll off me. Dwelling on it won’t change it.  Instead, I completely focus on what I can do to make the situation better.  If there’s nothing, I just relax and continually refocus my thoughts in another direction.  This takes practice but it does work. 

Control What Can Be Controlled (and Let Go of Everything Else).  When I compete, I can control only about 80% of what will happen during a race. I prepare as best I can, practicing skills and training for the distances and disciplines. I check (and double check) my equipment.  I plan and train for many types of race day situations. I get as much sleep as possible and eat as well as I can. But I can’t control the other competitors, or the weather, or something random like a squirrel running out in front of my bike.  So, I have to just accept what can’t be controlled.  No point in worrying about things that are out of my hands.

Let Go of What-Ifs.  What If’ing can really waste a lot of energy and time.  First of all, 98% of the things we worry about never happen.  And, when things do go wrong (2% of the time), we usually figure things out. And, if we’ve prepared as best we can (see #3), then we’ll handle what ever comes up just fine. 

Stay Present. This means literally keeping your thoughts and attention right HERE.  Most of the time, we are thinking about things that are either going to happen in the future or we are analyzing things that already happened in the past. For whatever reason, it’s very hard for most of us to focus only on what’s going on right now.  Focusing on the present is usually less stressful because its HERE now and even if what must be done right now is hard, its often much easier to deal with than whatever we imagined beforehand.

Breathe…Breathe Some More.  Stress usually makes us breathe less deeply. Shallow breathing automatically makes us feel stress (even when we’re not). So if you catch yourself feeling stressed, pay attention to your breath.  Chances are you are breathing quickly and only into the upper 1/3 of your chest.  If you take the time to breathe deeply and all the way into your belly, you’ll find this can often help you feel calmer.

Do the Best You Can With What You Have.  I find that as long as I do this, I am always satisfied with the results, no matter what they are.

I’ll use all of the above and more to help stay calm these next few days.  And, after the race, no matter what happens, I’ll know I did everything possible to ensure a good outcome. And, that will be enough 🙂