I’ve been watching more of the winter Olympic Games than I normally do. The sports contested in the summer games are more appealing to me, and I rarely tune in to any winter sports. This year, however, I’m enjoying catching a few minutes of each of the sports. The variety exposes me to some sports I’ve never heard of (slope style, for example), and I watch just a few “performances” of each so that monotony isn’t an issue.
Many of the winter sports seem particularly prone to mistakes by way of falls that are catastrophic to obtaining a high score or medaling. As an unskilled viewer who has zero ability to carry out any of the skills attempted by the contestants in these games, I don’t deserve the right to critically characterize an Olympian’s performance as “a disaster” or “a bombed run.” That said, it’s hard not to note that falling off the rails in slope style, tumbling into one’s butt when trying a jump in figure skating, or failing to stick a landing in ski jumping must be disappointing to the athlete. While it’s certainly an amazing honor and achievement to make it to the Olympics, after all the years of hours of practice and sacrifice, having a big “mistake” during one of the biggest moments of one’s athletic career on a world stage must be devastating. I hope that for most of the athletes who experience this type of major fumble, the bigger picture achievement (becoming an Olympian) outshines the letdown of failing to perform at one’s best at the Games. Since my competitive experience is in distance running, the likelihood of totally botching a race in but a moment’s misstep is largely nullified. Even with a poor start, getting boxed in behind other racers, the loss of a shoe, a fall, or a muscle cramp, it’s usually possible to recover and still produce a decent race performance. It’s definitely a realistic possibility that a major race with any of these obstacles or the host of other potential issues will result in a slower time or a poor finishing place, but the chance of salvaging the overall performance is higher in a long distance race compared to a single jump, a short program skating routine, or a speed skate sprint that lasts but a minute or two. In these type of winter events, sticking a landing or remaining upright is paramount to obtaining a good score.
I imagine the pressure and thoughts going through these young, amazingly talented athletes’ minds as they take to the ice or cross the threshold at the top of the ski course. Their ability to self-regulate and mitigate the stress they feel must be so developed. I can’t help but compare their attained skill in this regard at often quite young ages with my difficulty in handling much lower levels of stressful everyday conditions that still manage to invoke remarkably high levels of anxiety for me. Essentially, their stoicism and composure begs me to question: why can’t I handle my comparatively much less stressful situations with proportionally lower levels of anxiety (which, given the extent to which my stressors should be so much less pressure-inducing than theirs, really shouldn’t be giving me anxiety).
I’ve been an anxious person for as long as I can remember. I can even point to specific incidents and behaviors from when I was a toddler that are clearly indicative of undue anxiety. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder as a teenager, and I think I never really learned effective coping mechanisms so that by the time I was a young adult and the circumstances that could potentially induce anxiety were more frequent and more high-stakes (and thus, being anxious about them was much more reasonable), I was prone to near constant anxiety. It certainly played into my frequent stomach aches and headaches as well. It’s well-established that anxious thoughts can manifest in somatic symptoms.
Like the Olympic athletes, I also battled performance anxiety before running races. These nerves were guaranteed to plague me prior to cross country and track races as an adolescent (when I was highly competitive), and although I developed better relaxation techniques and control over pre-race jitters as a young adult road racer, I’ve never been that calm before a race. At least with athletic performance, according to the Inverted U Theory, some degree of anxiety or “arousal” pre-competition is actually advantageous and considered the ideal performance state. While it’s true that I developed effective techniques to lessen my nerves as I matured as an athlete, truth be told, I think the stakes and resultant pressure decreased as I got older. Given my high level as a teenage runner, the pressure was somewhat real. I was often in the spotlight and I felt the weight of that position. That is not to say that I regret that or that it’s necessarily a bad place to be. In contrast, I enjoyed competing at the highest level and I think those years of racing near the top in big races taught me many invaluable lessons and developed my character. It wasn’t always easy, but it also wasn’t always unhealthy.
In addition to generalized anxiety, I also have had social anxiety most of my life. As a young child, I was impossibly shy, which I believe is a product of social anxiety and a frequent presentation of such in children. The self-awareness of social situations being a trigger for my anxiety didn’t develop until the age of nine. I distinctly remember understanding my fear and reluctance to engage in certain social situations, like birthday parties or meeting new people, as a fourth grader. Before that, I’d usually just clam up and hide behind others or conveniently “get sick” to avoid overwhelming social environments oblivious as to why I’d suddenly transform from a hyperactive, chatty kid to a reticent little mouse or experience ill feelings “coincidentally” timed to social gatherings.
Both my generalized and social anxiety became much worse after compounded by the Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) that resulted from getting violently attacked in a home invasion. Because PTSD is also an anxiety condition, it has acted as an amplifier on my persistent state of baseline anxiety. Especially in the first years and months after the attack, it also produced situational anxieties that I’d largely be unaffected by prior to the incident. For example, I became particularly anxious when the doorbell rang or someone knocked, when carrying laundry, when in the presence of men I didn’t know well, or when considering or being involved in anything sexual. In the past eighteen months, I’ve mostly inoculated myself against these triggers and minimized them to more normal levels. The heightened generalized and social anxieties are slowly retreating to their lower pre-attack baseline levels, but they still have a long way to go. The progress is slow and the degree to which they got exacerbated is enormous. At least I’m going in the right direction. I made no progress or regressed for at least the first two years, so these more recent gains are not to be overlooked.
I’m more interested in open in exploring ways to tackle anxious feelings and calm myself these days. For some reason, as a younger person, I resisted stress management techniques. I think I was partially in denial about my anxious tendencies and the extent to which they negatively impacted me. I tried SSRI medications a few times (as a 16-year old, and as a 20/21-year old), with unclear results. To be fair, there were a lot of confounding variables at play during those times so the medications’ effectiveness against my anxiety cannot really be fairly judged. I adamantly resisted such medications again for years after my last prescription because they were invoked as a potential major contributor to my suicidal behavior. They were immediately tapered and stopped and my medical record that follows me over the years has dissuaded providers from pursuing that path again. I’m open to a pharmacological approach again now, but I much prefer non-drug routes. Although anxiety is still problematic in some areas of my daily life, I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made in recent months at ratcheting it down. If this were not the case, I’d be more concerned about pursuing an aggressive treatment route, likely involving medication. This doesn’t seem necessary given my significant improvements. I hope to keep learning and practicing strategies to keep my anxiety in check and feel confident, capable, and calm instead.