I woke up a few days ago, after a fitful night of sleep, with raging anxiety. And, as brains like to do, mine kept searching for anything it could to validate these feelings: I was tired, I had a long day planned (including a big workout), I had to start my day with teaching and motivating others, I was leaving for a few days to attempt to have some fun and relaxation with my sometimes challenging young adult children, I have to fit in training hard amongst trying to enjoy time with my family… after several unsuccessful minutes of trying to breathe and calm myself down, I decided to get up and start my day.
After being up for just a few short minutes, I had to laugh at myself a bit. How could I still be surprised that this happened three weeks out from a big race? As an athlete, I have personally experienced this kind of anxiousness many times before when getting close to a big race. And, as a coach, I have been helping my athletes who near their own goals navigate this very same doubt, lack of control, fear of the unknown, and physical/emotional/mental fatigue that cultivates this same brand of anxiety.
Now, having the awareness and understanding of the what and why of waking up with a pounding heart and racing thoughts doesn’t always automatically make it feel better. Circumstantial anxiety feels very real. It is not fun. But, you don’t have to suffer while letting it take over your life, tainting your excitement leading up to actualizing a big goal.
A few ideas on how you can support yourself better when anxiety reigns: (what works for me!)
Practice cultivating mental, physical, and emotional self-awareness and compassion. Your thoughts are not you, and they are often not even true. When you are experiencing damaging thoughts, slow down and reflect on them. Remain curious as to why you are having them. Be kind and honest to yourself. Replace and/or reframe when needed. Do not ignore, or try to smother with toxic positivity.
Practice daily mindfulness. According to a 2020 NYU study on the Psychology of the Female Athlete, both innate and learned practices of mindfulness can have markedly positive effects on the performance and wellbeing of athletes. Mindful athletes are more proven to mitigate reactions to their surroundings, adapt to the challenge faced and ultimately persevere. When feeling anxious take 5-10 minutes to focus, connecting to your breathing and staying present. Do this before, and even during, a training session to lessen the burden of anxiety.
Find a support network. Be open with your family, close friends, therapists, coaches and teammates. Create systems of accountability with your support so that you can reach out when struggling. Surround yourself with people who will listen to your fears and then help you see through to the truth.
Be aware of your insecurities and anxiety triggers. When prone toward anxiety, be very mindful of the messaging you take in from others and external sources of information and/or influence. Try to make decisions not based on what you “should” do according to outside sources, but by what you need to do to care for yourself. Clear your calendar of activities and people that trigger and/or fuel your anxiety.
As I mentioned last week: Know WHY. Cultivate a “why” or purpose for your athletic goals in order to help you prioritize them in a way that honors your mental, physical, and emotional health.
When experiencing anxiety, set micro goals for your day as well as for your training. Establish ways that you can measure success through the entire process, rather than waiting for finish lines. Reframe “failures” as valuable lessons.
Take diligent care of your physical body and overall wellbeing. Sleep. Eat well. Hydrate.
Arguably, the best thing to do about low grade anxiety is to let it be, as fighting it often makes it worse. This is where experience and routines leading up to race day really help. An established baseline training routine can provide physical and mental benefits while still allowing anxiety to be present as needed. Most of us have had a lot of success racing with anxiety.
Personally, a little anxiety means that I care deeply about the goal. I also know that my brain will try to catastrophize the situation, bringing in all of the evidence as to why I am not ready, or why it will be a really terrible experience: comparison, unworthiness, searching for comfort, fear, etc….
In reality, while I am not ready to win (I never do), and I am not ready to have an easy day (it never is), I know why I am racing.
And, although I know that some low level anxiety will be present for the next three weeks, I am not going to let it make me think that honoring my WHY is not worth it. I hope you can lean on yours to help remind you of the truth too.
**Disclaimer: I am speaking to circumstantial anxiety, not crippling anxiety, or anxiety disorders. If you feel anxiety that feels unhealthy to you, or that overwhelms your life, please contact a professional.