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Feel Anxious or Stuck? Realign with Reality.

“The greatest to ever do this event…there is no question, no female gymnast in history has ever taken this event on like Simone Biles,” veteran NBC announcer Tim Daggett gushed as Biles was standing at the end of the vault runway during the 2021 Olympic games. Midway through the jump, in the air, she bailed: opening up her arms to slow rotation before crashing into the matt, lunging out with her right foot to maintain balance. On air, NBC’s Daggett gasped. A momentary silence filled the broadcast before Daggett let out a simple, “Wow.” His fellow commentator, former Olympic Gold medalist Nastia Liukin, commented with a mix of bewilderment and trying to make sense of what they’d just witnessed,, “Very uncharacteristic vault for Simone, it looked like she, got almost lost in the air…”

Moments later, Biles had withdrawn from the team competition. As we’d soon learn, Biles suffered from the twisties, a kind of perception-action disconnect, an error where the sensory information coming from both your body and the periphery doesn’t line up with your actions.

This disconnect doesn’t just apply to sports, it happens to the rest of us. Maybe you feel apathetic and like you are languishing, even though you really do want to write that book or finish that project. Maybe you really do want to train for that half-marathon, but your body seems stuck, unable to muster the energy to get out the door. From time to time, we all experience a perception-action disconnect, perhaps just not to the extreme of Biles.

In Do Hard Things, I outline the science and psychology of what occurs when we ‘freak out’ and what we can do to deal with it. I like to think of these situations as our brain making bad predictions. Our brain thinks we are in real danger when we step to the starting line, pumping too much cortisol into the system, causing us to want to run away instead of around a track. Or, we feel a sudden surge of adrenaline when we walk up to our in-law’s house. Our brain thinks we are encountering a lion when really it is just our mother-in-law. Or, in the case of Biles, it shuts her down, attempting to protect her, by ceasing to allow her to function normally, and do her routines. The key to such mismatches is to dislodge our predictions and realign them with reality.

Three tactics:

1. Decrease the anxiety.
2. Sit with it
3. Dislodge it.

The first two are common. We try to decrease the anxiety, stress, or fear. We’re nervous before a test so we try some deep breathing to send the signal to chill out, everything is okay. We can do this by talking our self-down, shifting our focus, distracting ourselves, breathing exercises, or shaking out and moving. All can help, but they normally work on the small items, temporarily.

The second tactic is to sit with it. You feel the anxiety or pressure, and you try to ride that wave. You try to be mindful, to not assign judgement to your thoughts or feelings and just experience them instead. The thinking goes that if you sit with these thoughts and feelings instead of reward them (via giving them attention), eventually your brain will get the message “nothing interesting here.” This tactic works well over the long haul for small to medium disruptors. It’s like physical training, if we can learn to sit with things enough, eventually we’ll be able to navigate them.

The final tactic is a bit different, and not so mainstream. It’s the tactic I resort to when someone is in a situation like Biles, when two plus two no longer equals four. It’s when we need our perspective shifted, and to realign our predictions with reality. In such cases, you intentionally manipulate your perceptions as a way to nudge you out of the incorrect groove you’ve found yourself in. A basketball player who’s struggling mightily with his shot may need to practice shooting in the complete dark. A golfer who is suffering from the yips may need to practice putting underwater. In extreme cases of ‘choking’, you need to first dislodge, before you realign.

We need to do hard things that change our experience completely. When our predictions lead us towards protection, our brain defaults toward a particular defensive cascade. Maybe it’s cortisol and dissociation, or high arousal and panic. Our brain gets used to seeing a hint of threat, then defaulting to this well-worn pathway. We need to overload it, to throw a mishmash of intense feelings, emotions, and hormones to knock us out of the well-grooved path, and to remind us there are other possibilities out there.

If your problem is that you feel like you can’t get out of bed, you may need to jump in an ice bath. Why? Not because of some magical property of metabolic miracle, simply because jumping in something cold sends a surge of adrenaline through your body, taking you away from the chronic moderate arousal that is often associated with anxiety, giving you a giant hit of the substance, and then a rapid return down to near zero. It doesn’t have to be an ice bath. World-class sculptor, Emil Alzamora described to us on a recent podcast his solution to getting stuck in his craft. “I go outside my studio, which is right next to a steep hill. And I sprint up it.” We can have the same experience playing with our dog, going on a hike, or any number of activities that shift our perspective, send a surge of hormones, and remind our body what it means to feel alive, and then shut that stress response off.

In the case of the athletes, we’re dislodging perception and action to get them back to closer to reality. In the case of feeling like you are languishing, we realign the chronically stimulated brain and body that we have thanks to social media, the internet, and always-on news, to the way our stress response system was supposed to work: rapid on, rapid off. There are no magic solutions to when your brain and body seem on different wavelengths. But there are tools and tactics that can help you get back in line, to make better predictions, even if you are Simone Biles.

Steve

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