It was the night before the NCAA Regional Cross-Country Championships, and the team I coached would face off against the best runners in Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana. The women’s team came up with its best ranking in a decade, led by a powerful trio of runners who were on the verge of achieving all-region status. The only problem: Senior Meredith Sorensen was in fantastic shape but was suffering from one of the worst cases of performance anxiety I’ve ever seen.
Two weeks before, at the conference championships, when she was on the line to turn off the gun, she turned around, hopped on the floor, then started running. For Meredith, this is normal. She was so tense she could barely hold her food. She finished the race with an IV in a medical tent. Now she was physically cleared for the race, and I was stumped on how to help her compete to the best of her ability.
The night before the race I met Andy Stover at a local bar. Andy was a former college distance runner, a social worker with skills in innovative ways, and a groom in my marriage. When broadcasting all the traditional techniques I tried with Meredith — preparing her for discomfort, visualizing her, and changing her mood to see the anxiety in earnest — she joked, “Turn the script. Give her some control.
Seeing the look of confusion on my face, Andy continued, “If she throws before every race, it’s part of the routine. She looks forward to it and is probably scared. So when this happens again and again, and she tries everything to prevent it, her brain learns that she is not in control. Make him stop fighting for himself. Give her back control. ”
The next day, when Meredith started her practice, she came and said, “I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
“Good!” I replied. “When do you want to do that?”
Her face turned to confusion with worry. “I don’t want to,” she said.
“I know,” I agreed, “but it happens. So what time do you want to throw? This should be before your jog, after you do your drills or your strides? Where do you want to add the throw in your practice routine? The race starts at 10 AM. When should I schedule your booking? “
There was still a confused look on her face, but she accepted it and went with it.
“At 9:45 pm, before I make my final strides,” he said.
Trying to look as confident as possible in this crazy idea, I replied, “Wonderful, 9:45. I set my alarm so we both know and can do it.
At 9:45, my alarm went off, and I walked to Meredith, telling her that it was time to throw up. The only problem is, she doesn’t need it. For the first time in many races, no puking occurred. She wasn’t perfect or free from anxiety, but she regained enough control to keep her mind free to focus on what she was doing and the impending anxiety and puking. She had the best race of her career, improved by nearly 20 places from her previous best, and lost the coveted all-region spot in just a few seconds in the 20-minute race.
Whenever we face fear or anxiety, our natural propensity is to tell us to ignore the pain or to relax when the nerves are acquired. And most likely, the attempt to command ourselves to change backfires. We all know this. In the history of telling someone to relax or calm down, has it ever worked?
When our effort to control the subject is reversed, our brain enters this action, What is the benefit? Or Why try? Whatever we do, we feel like we are no longer in control.
A sense of control is the glue that holds our rational brain together when we face challenging times. Without it, we would be spiraling. When we do not have control, actions become harder, pain is more intense and doubts seem louder. As we move toward apathy, hopelessness and lack of willpower to act, our motivation drops.
It is almost impossible to be tough when you have no hope of navigating your way through the current situation. And whenever we try to force ourselves to calm down, that is the exact signal we send and it does not necessarily work. We are not in control – anxiety.
Flipping the script is one way we can choose to regain control so we can move on. It takes something negative and makes it mundane, what you choose to experience.
Whatever the situation, observe what drives you toward fear and escape. Those triggers are usually a sign that we need to change the narrative. When we flip the script, we remove the power of content that makes us anxious. We are allowed to do something that we thought was negative.
“The desire for control is not something we acquire through learning, but rather, instinctive and biologically motivated. We are born to choose,” researchers Lauren Liotti, Sheena Iyengar and Kevin Ochsner concluded in a literary review. Cognitive science trends. The option allows us to return control. It is a kind of superpower that brings back confidence, helps us wrestle with our emotions and allows us to learn, adapt and grow.
Whenever you face a challenge that causes anxiety and fear, consider reversing the script. Move from escapism to acceptance, recognizing that you have the power to catch up with stressful prisoners and fulfill it according to your rules. Usually this subtle change gives us the freedom to perform.
Adapted from Do the hard workReprinted with permission of HarperOne, by Steve Magness, and an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2022.
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