Jewish World Review March 12, 2003 / 8 Adar II, 5763

The stresses of a violent world can take a toll on athletic performance

Small amounts of stress can actually improve athletic performance, say sports psychologists. But what happens when you have to live with sustained anxiety? Athletes suffer a loss of focus and energy, and a heightened risk of illness and injury.

By Marlene Cimons | We live in troubled times. The attacks of September 11, 2001, inflicted the first heavy damage to our collective psyche, making us feel vulnerable. And even after nearly two years, that stress level has not abated. If anything, it has worsened.

The likelihood of a U.S.-led war on Iraq, and the threat of additional terrorist attacks, have only prompted more anxiety. Life can hardly be lived as normal when government officials speak of food and water stockpiles, sealed rooms and gas masks.

It is well documented that regular vigorous exercise can go a long way toward alleviating the kinds of stresses we encounter daily: traffic gridlock, work deadlines, family demands.

But people today face pressures far more severe and difficult to ease. Exercise and competitive sports often don't relieve this kind of stress. In fact, going outside for an easy run can make you feel like an easy target -- just ask anyone in the Washington, D.C., area who tried to train outdoors last fall during the sniper crisis.

Athletic performance can suffer. The body is no longer sharp, mentally or physically. Stress can affect appetite, sleep patterns, heart rhythms, the immune system and a range of other body functions. Athletes who are serious about their sports (whether for sustained fitness and health, for high-level competition or even just because a daily workout is part of their normal routine) may find it tough going.

"The studies on stress and athletic performance basically show that small amounts of stress actually improve performance, whereas large amounts detract from optimal performance,'' says Daniel Landers, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science and physical education at Arizona State University in Tempe. "We know these (major) stresses can distract athletes in such ways as to decrease performance and increase the likelihood they will be injured.''

Unlike work pressures and family tensions, terrorism has shaken "our very foundations of feeling safe in the world ... creating a kind of national post traumatic stress disorder,'' says Kay Porter, Ph.D., a sports psychologist in Eugene, Ore.

To be sure, elsewhere in the world, athletes have been living and coping with these stresses for a long time.

"My area and most areas in Israel have encountered attacks of all kinds,'' says Yariv Timna, who lives in Zikhron Ya'aakov, a town between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Timna who recently ran the Dead Sea half-marathon and says, "The `good thing' about having frequent attacks is that you get used to it. Nobody stops driving because of car accidents, right?''

Still, not everyone can cope. Some give up their sports when they became victimized by their fears.

"Having lived in Colombia for most of my life, violence has always been close,'' says Cesar Centeno Serrano, a computer programmer who now lives in Canada. " I got to a point where I was feeling tired and lost the pleasure I felt in running and swimming. It became tedious, and I stopped. What started as `I have to be careful when I run because I don't want to go to places where a bomb can explode' became `why leave if I'm not going to enjoy my running?' ''

After moving to Canada, though, "I have felt alive, and lost the fear I had of something happening to me while trying to live a normal life,'' he says. "And I started running again.''

The impact of this kind of stress on the body can produce typical symptoms of PTSD, such as insomnia, agitation, depression, loss of appetite, and all this can affect conditioning,'' Porter says.

Exercise and stress utilize many of the same hormones produced by the body, including adrenaline, cortisol and other "fight or flight'' substances, says William M. Miley, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, N.J. "If stress -- sometimes called `distress' to connote the negativity of the stress -- has depleted the supply or effectiveness of these hormones, then less is available for competition.''

Athletes under extreme stress are susceptible to colds and other upper-respiratory illnesses, high blood pressure, heart disease and even diabetes, he adds.

"Stress most likely decreases the effectiveness of the cardiovascular system, saps general energy, dilutes focus and, in general, should produce less than optimum performance,'' Miley says. "The closer individuals are to disasters, physically and psychologically, the more adversely their performances should suffer.''

Also, for serious athletes, having to fly to get to an important event can provoke additional fears. Some athletes no longer want to fly -- which can make competing difficult. And for those willing to travel by air, long lines at airports, increased travel times -- the result of time-consuming security measures -- can hurt the body. And that's already on top of the inevitable jet lag. Then, once an athlete arrives, the security arrangements can be daunting, as well as reassuring.

"I was talking to an elite runner friend who said a number of runners she knows are afraid to travel after the 9/11 tragedy,'' Porter says. "They are uncomfortable about flying, especially to foreign countries.''

Experts who work with athletes say there are ways to handle stress to minimize its adverse effects. Here are some tips:

-- Practice this: Develop a "signal'' that tells your brain it's time to let go of other "stuff'' in your life, and become only a runner.

"For example, when you're lacing up your shoes, that could be your signal. Now you're a runner, not a mom, or dad or physician or firefighter,'' says Greg Dale, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology and sports psychology consultant to the athletic department at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

"Stress can affect your performance if you take it with you on your run,'' says Dale. "What you have to do is make the transition by letting go. One athlete I work with visualizes flushing all that stuff down a toilet. You can put it over in a tree. Pick whatever image you want.''

-- Practice relaxation techniques before you race. "Take a deep breath and say the word `relax' as you exhale,'' Lander says. Tell yourself, "I have run this race before under pressure, and I can do it again.'' And if negative thoughts intrude, say the word "stop,'' and immediately substitute a positive thought. Focus on that.

-- Create a ritual that is comfortable, and use it consistently from one competition to another, and even during training. "The routine needs to be practiced regularly if it is to become as automatic as putting one leg in front of the other when running,'' Landers says.

-- Try not to get distracted once the race begins. Focus on your gait, your breathing, your form. "Don't let the stressful thoughts come back in,'' Dale says. "Focus on the runner in front of you. One of my runners views people in front of him like a predator -- a lion -- and they are prey. He picks them off, one at a time. When he's focused on that, the rest of the stuff can't get back in.''

-- Try to give yourself 10 to 20 minutes a day for meditation or prayer, "anything to give yourself quiet, reflective time daily,'' Porter says. This can help keep you grounded.

Consider one or more sessions with a trained professional hypnotherapist. Many psychologists and psychiatrists practice this art and can teach you self-hypnosis that you can do on your own. Knowing this skill can enhance relaxation and visualization. Hypnosis also can help you get over fear of flying.

-- Finally, don't forget the basics: Get seven or eight hours of sleep every night, avoid junk food and alcohol, reduce your intake of sugar and fat, take a good multivitamin, and drink at least eight glasses of water every day.

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