Tuesday 22nd of October 2019

Let’s talk about…competition anxiety

It may be Mental Health Awareness Week but this topic is something we need to explore each and every day so that we can create as much awareness and exposure as possible to mental health, writes Camilla Henderson.

I felt it would be of particular relevance this week for equestrian readers to explore how we tackle some of the common struggles faced in the competition environment: dealing with pressure, stress and anxiety and how we can overcome these, and to be the best we can be.

So this week the ‘Lets Talk About…’ hot topic is focused on answering – how do we better deal and cope with Competition Anxiety?

Here is a simple 7 step guide to better coping, including some mental tools and tips, some dietary guidance and a few helpful points on what to focus on when you next feel overwhelmed at a competition, or even the night before when worrying about what tomorrow will bring. It is most often our negative thoughts that provoke the nervous/ anxious response (physiological responses), or that overwhelming feeling of dread or anxiousness before an event. So that is where it starts – developing that mindset in order to optimise performance processes and behaviours.

© The Gaitpost

The 7 Steps to Overcoming Competition Anxiety :

1.     Reflection & Acceptance

2.     Taking Control.

3.     Mindfulness / Meditation

4.     Breathing

5.     Natural Remedies & Supplements – The Debate is Open!

6.     Controlling Caffeine Consumption

7.     Sleep Hygiene

1. Reflection & Acceptance

Quite often we can become overwhelmed by our thoughts, this is caused by over thinking – over loading, and too many negative thoughts. So first of all start to reflect and become more aware of when you start to do this. Think about what the triggers or stimuli were that you reacted to In order to respond so negatively? Start keeping a reflective diary log, all my clients would reflect weekly on their challenges and struggles throughout their training routines and their competition days.

© The Gaitpost

Start to pick them apart, go through each one. Through this process we are trying to understand these thoughts, know where they came from. The more we address our thoughts the more we should start to feel in more control, as opposed to sweeping them under the carpet, trying to avoid, a typical example of an avoidance behaviours would be turning up the music on the way to the event. Start to face the things that worry you, think about the triggers, understand them, acceptance is key, this will assist with the perception we can cope. If we think ‘why am I worrying so much’ we are more likely to feel like we are unable to cope, as you are perceiving the problem to be out of your control.

2. Taking Control

Anxiety is best overcome by confronting fears rather than avoiding them, avoiding them allows the anxiety to grow even stronger. When thinking about those trigger moments that set off our worries / negative thoughts – start to think about taking more autonomy (control) of those thoughts which will help us feel less overwhelmed.

© The Gaitpost

This is where the reflection and acceptance comes into place. Then the action plan is to take the control of what you can do in that situation. The more we feel we are in control, the better the perception we are going to have of that we are able to cope. This is where the fight or flight response kicks in, we want the fight response, so we can tackle the challenge and perceive it as an opportunity instead of a threat.

Quite often making a list of everything (Physical & Psych) that is in your control regarding what you can do to problem solve your struggle / worries can be helpful.

3. Mindfulness / Meditation

Competition or no competition, in order to sustain positive mental health it is important that we engage in finding our own head space and practice daily relaxation methods to reduce physical symptoms of tension which can often then contribute to feelings of anxiousness. Taking 5-10 minutes a day to meditate can help you manage and control your feelings of anxiousness and often done the night before an event or in the lorry before your warm up can also be of help.

There are plenty of really good apps that you can download on App Store on your Iphone. ‘Saatva’ provide a selection of tools such as timers, heart monitors and goal trackers. ‘Calm’ provides music, natural scenes and guided meditation sessions. ‘Headspace’ is a very popular app which offers 10-minute meditation sessions, animations and instructions to assist the process. The ‘Mindfulness App’ offers guided meditation sessions that can span from 3 to 30 minutes and reminders to meditate.

© The Gaitpost

4. Breathing

Breathing is one of the most important mental tools in which is so commonly overlooked when reducing physical symptoms of anxiety, fear and panic. When you become over burdened by negative thoughts and worries, start to centre your focus on your breathing. Firstly just become more aware of your breathing pattern, note how short your breath might be, and the tempo of your breathing.

Avoid breathing too deeply or rapidly (hyperventilation) as this can cause physical symptoms of panic. Start to think about breathing properly with your diaphragm, breathe in through the nose filling up your tummy like a balloon up and outwards, whilst keeping your shoulders, upper back, head and arms all relaxed. Ensure your chest and upper body aren’t moving when you are breathing in. Breathe out a long lengthened exhale through your mouth, thinking about deflating that balloon (your tummy). Repeat the process. Make sure your breathing is even, fluid and not hurried.

5. Natural Remedies & Supplements – The Debate is Open!

I’m not a huge advocate on relying on natural / homeopathic remedies to combat stress or anxiety, because I would always want my clients first and foremost to do everything they can to feel in control, which starts with being in control of the thought processes and mindset. We want to keep away from the unhealthy habit thinking of  ‘I can’t cope, therefore I must guzzle a whole bottle of rescue remedy before my dressage test’. Many clients I know will use them from time to time as a comfort which is acceptable and ok, as long as they are not overly used and as a sole reliance for coping. The Nelsons Bach Rescue Remedy drops and pastilles (vegan & gluten free) are made from natural flower essences – rock rose, impatiens, clematic, star of bethleham and cherry plum in a grape alcohol solution, they are used as an added comfort with a few drops onto the tongue direct or diluted into water. Similar, passion flower concentrated droplets for water and rhodiola complex vegetable tablets are also used to help sooth and comfort.

6. Controlling Caffeine Consumption

Many people become highly addictive to energy drinks and coffee to get them through the day, so often they are used as a quick fix go to before going into the arena or going into a lesson to get that needed sugar rush or caffeine rush. Whether these are diet versions or ‘full fat’ versions, both are just as bad for us, even if labelled ‘healthy energy drink’ – most often they are not. If you don’t understand many of the words in small print on the back then these are your warning lights, even if they are natural sweeteners, anything with glucose, fructose, sucrose, maltose, honey and syrup will all have the same affects.

If you are particularly anxious before competing then try to cut down or eliminate these drinks as caffeine gives us a boost and increases feelings of alertness, in higher doses it produces effects similar to anxiety, disrupts sleep and can make panic attacks more likely. People who experience anxious states should reduce their daily intake to 300mg or less (caffeine). Many people find it nest to avoid caffeine altogether. If you think you need that energy boost before competing then just eat the right healthy foods that will ensure you get this, it does not mean caffeine or fizzy drinks.

7. Sleep Hygiene

Too much stress can make us anxious, tense and can cause sleep problems. When we are over thinking and anxious about a competition our sleep patterns are often disrupted or sometimes we just end up having less sleep just because our preparation has taken longer than we thought getting ready. So preparation and organisation is vital, make sure you allow yourself sufficient preparation time, and that down time before getting into bed the night before a competition, especially with an early alarm. When you are tired, you are less patient and more easily agitated, which can increase stress. Adequate sleep is crucial for daily function, general health and mental health. Adults, in average, need 7-9 hours of sleep per night.

A good night’s of sleep and good sleep hygiene is one of the effective ways to deal with stress. Sleep helps the body cope with our daily activities and is a process which goes through different physiological phases. Sleep helps restore the energy you spend throughout your day, taking naps is also an effective way to deal with stress and anxiety temporarily so can be a useful strategy at competition if you have time in the lorry which will help the body recover lost energy and be energised for the remaining hours of the day, also can help reduce heart rate and blood pressure.

© The Gaitpost

Find out about Camilla’s forthcoming Peak Performance Workshop – Find that Winning Edge HERE

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