Mental Health and Performance: Overcoming Anxiety


, by Sarah Broadhead

Photography by: Flamingo Images

Worrying about 'what if' impacts many people in many different situations - particularly around sport. However, there are some simple things we can all do to help manage ourselves through anxious moments, as sports psychologist Sarah Broadhead explains.

What if I mess up? What if I haven’t prepared enough? I am worried about what people will think. I’m not ready so it is best not to do it. These are all examples of thoughts we might have about life - or a sporting event - if we are feeling anxious.

What is anxiety? It is imagining or predicting something in the future that we think will be difficult/distressing or we won’t be able to cope with.

The main job your brain has is to keep you alive and out of danger, so it makes sense to predict and avoid things we don’t think we can deal with. The problem is that the brain can be over-cautious and make us worry about things that might not happen or that we are capable of handling. Learning to recognize and manage anxiety can help you enjoy life and take on challenges with more confidence.

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Anxiety can be experienced as thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and behaviors. We'll explore these in more detail.


Let’s start with thoughts. Mind reading what other people are thinking is a common thought, for example: ‘If I don’t do this perfectly, I will let everyone down.’ As social beings, we are wired to care about what other people think of us and often assume that they are thinking the worst. By acknowledging this we can learn to be more objective and check whether our thoughts are accurate… or not. Most of the time people are focused on themselves and their own lives and worries, so we don’t get as much of their head space as we think we do.

Anxiety can be experienced as thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and behaviors. Photography by: Viktor Gladkov

Thinking about what might happen is also common (we call that the ‘what-if’ question). Turn this into a statement rather than a question, then practice reviewing how likely this is to happen or what can be done to prevent it. For example, maybe your what-if is: ‘I will run out of energy during my event’. Now you have a statement, you can focus on what is in your control to help you maintain energy, such as following a training plan and having a nutrition strategy that you have practiced beforehand. Even if the worst does happen, write down what you can do, or support that you have, to help cope with this. Talking to other people helps us gain perspective on the worst-case scenario.

Some people find setting aside time to worry during the day is helpful. You can set a ten-minute timer and write down all your worries and any actions you can take. At the end of this, you move on with your day.

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Acceptance and being in the moment can also help manage anxiety. Acceptance means that you acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, and recognize that they will pass. The more you fight them or wish you didn’t have them the longer they can stay around.

We know anxiety is worry about the future, so if we can practice being in the moment and being fully engaged with what we are doing, this can bring relief to an anxious brain. Try finding a flow activity that is not too easy or too hard and where time feels like it is flying. Often sport and movement act as flow activities for many of us, but it also includes things like gardening, cooking, or yoga.

We know anxiety is worry about the future, so if we can practice being in the moment and being fully engaged with what we are doing, this can bring relief to an anxious brain.

Controlling the body

Anxiety can also be experienced as bodily sensations such as a racing heart, palpitations, shortness of breath, and tension in your jaw and muscles. Your body does this as the sympathetic nervous system is activated and ready to deal with the anticipated threat.

The best way to reduce anxiety and enter the parasympathetic system is by controlling your breathing. Try carrying out a physiological sigh where you take a double inhale through your nose to fill your lungs, followed by a long exhale. After a few of these breaths, your heart rate and breathing will slow down, and you will feel calmer. How we interpret these sensations is key. We can learn to see these sensations as adrenaline being released in the body, which means we are ready for action, rather than a sign of anxiety and nerves.

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Behavioral impacts

Finally, anxiety can impact our behaviors. If you are worried about a future event, one way to reduce the anxiety is to avoid it. Avoidance provides temporary relief but doesn’t help in the long run as it reinforces the belief that we can’t handle that situation. We can practice the skill of taking action, even if we are worried about it, and our brains learn that nothing bad happens.

If you know logically that you have done the training or have the fitness to complete an event, but anxiety is trying to sabotage you, recognize that you can still take part even with worries in the background. Having supportive and encouraging people around you who know what you are capable of will also help.

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