Are You a Worrier? Me Too!: How Worrying Can Help Us and Hurt Us

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in early April in the Pacific Northwest and I’m well aware that we got lucky. I’m about to bike an organized 100km for the first time with a training partner of mine. I wake up at 5am, make coffee, and start to check things off of my list of “to dos”.

  1. Make coffee…check
  2. Drink coffee…check
  3. Eat something…check
  4. Make sure necessary attire is packed…check
  5. Cycling shoes packed…check
  6. Running shoes and clothes packed for my brick run afterwards packed…check
  7. Make and pack nutrition/hydration stuff for the ride…check
  8. Load up my bike on my truck’s bike rack…check
  9. Lock bike on bike rack…whoops forgot to do that…check
  10. Get out of PJs and into pre-ride clothes…wait, what do I wear on my way over? Do I wear sweats? Do I just put my amazingly stylish bike bib shorts on for the whole world to see? What do “real” cyclists do? I forgot to ask! I forgot to look it up on one of the million forums online!!! Oh, no! I’m going to look like a moron out there! Everyone’s going to know that I have no idea what I’m doing!…on and on go the worries.

At this point in my morning, I’m running around my house like a chicken with my head cut off. Finally, I’m ready and I head out the front door. I turn around to lock it and realize I forgot my keys!! Are you (bleep) kidding me!?

tommyboy

I walk back inside, grab my keys, and walk/jog out the front door, lock it, and get into my truck. I sit there a minute. It’s now 6:02am and I told my training partner I would pick him up at 6am. I take a moment and I take a long deep breath in and exhale slowly. Then I text my buddy and say: “Be there in 5min”. I sit for another minute just to re-center myself by being aware of my breathing without trying to change/manipulate it. I know full-well that the deep and endless hole of unproductive worry has gotten the best of me. It’s caused my morning preparation performance to suffer and if it continues, my morning prep won’t be the only thing that is negatively impacted.

Worrying is helpful…to a point! I have often credited my tendency to worry as being somewhat of an edge that I get over others. In my mind, I’ll justify it as being a key mechanism that helps me to perform. In a way, it is. I mean, if I didn’t worry about oncoming traffic when I’m running along the side of a busy street, I’d probably end up hurt or worse. However, worry can get away from me and impede my performance if I’m not being actively aware of it. Like drinking beer and eating medium-rare steak, worrying can be good as long as it’s done in moderation. There comes a point where I need to stop and ask myself: “Is it helping me to continue to worry like this?”. If the answer is “yes”, by all means go on worrying but if I’ve been worrying about the same thing for the past 30 minutes without the ability to change my circumstances, it’s safe to say that my worry is only causing undue psychological (and possibly physical) suffering.

In the early 1900s, these brilliant psychologists (Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson; just in case you’re interested, it’s pronounced “Yur-keys”) did some interesting work with rats. Specifically, they found out that when the rats were administered a mild to moderate shock, they would be much more motivated to quickly complete a maze. However, if no shock or too much shock was administered the rats would not complete the maze at all. Essentially, they found out that the rats performed well when they were mildly to moderately anxious/stressed but performed poorly when they were too stressed or when they weren’t stressed enough.

Yerkes-Dodson-Bell-Curve
These findings can be and have been generalized to human beings and the concept is known as the Yerkes and Dodson Law (creative, right? J). Consider, for a moment, when you’re studying for a test or when you’re about to hear the gun go off before a big race. Are you worried? Are you stressed? Are you amped up? I know I am at least one of those things and Michael Phelps was too! Is it possible that Chad Le Clos wasn’t worried enough in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games? I have no way of knowing for sure, but let’s just say: Possibly. Maybe.

phelps

See the Men’s 2016 Summer Games 200 Butterfly results here.

There are real-life examples everywhere that provide us with the proof that worrying can be helpful or harmful and how the lack of worrying might just get us into trouble. The key is to find our sweet spot. What area of that curve suits us best when it comes to optimal performance? Mostly, figuring this out takes trial and error because it’s so individual. For me, I already know that getting overly worried/anxious can be done without any effort at all. So, I’ve figured out a way to reduce my worry so my performance doesn’t suffer like it did that morning before my first 100km.  Centering myself by breathing deeply and slowly followed by just simply being aware of my breathing without actively changing it is a great option. It’s also readily available without much effort and without any financial cost. Not a bad trade-off when you consider the benefits (i.e., being much more intentional with my actions).

So, I say: Bring it on, adversity! The more I practice, the more prepared I’ll be when (not if) I’m faced with adversity during Ironman Canada in July. The normalization of worry presented by Yerkes and Dodson paired with the small, yet powerful, strategy of centering myself with my breathing will go a LONG way when I recognize that my worry is getting the best of my performance.

Until next time…

Cheers!


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