Monday, December 9, 2013

Conquering Anxiety - Judd Biasiotto (1985)

"The Flinch"
by Julien Smith.

Anxiety is an emotion that can completely destroy your performance. Once I started working with athletes I came to realize that anxiety was a very common dilemma. Many of the professional athletes from the Kansas City Royals and the Pittsburgh Pirates that I've worked with had difficulty controlling this emotion. Consequently, most of my initial work as a sports psychologist was devoted towards researching methods that could be used to desensitize anxiety. Fortunately, after almost a decade of research, I have gained valuable insight as to the optimum methods to deal with and eliminate anxiety in athletic performance. I would like to outline some of the methods that I've found most successful in controlling anxiety during competition.

One of the primary ingredients in anxiety elimination is to learn deep muscle relaxation (DMR). Relaxation is probably one of the most frequently used behaviors that will control anxiety or worry. The rationale behind the use of DMR is that it is antagonistic to anxiety. In other words, it is physiologically impossible to be totally relaxed and anxious at the same time. The aim of this relaxation technique is not for the athlete to become totally devoid of the stressors in his environment. The purpose, rather, is for the athlete to feel comfortable with himself and alert to his internal-external environment. I am not trying to get the athlete in a total stupor, but instead in a controlled physiological state.

The athletes who would benefit most from relaxation exercises would be those who have uncomfortably high anxiety responses that interfere with their physical performances. Even athletes who do not suffer from such high levels of anxiety can benefit from DMR by controlling other daily stressful activities such as headaches, insomnia, etc. Rarely, if ever, could anyone be considered worse off after proper relaxation training.

The relaxation method that I favor is called progressive relaxation. This technique requires neither special equipment nor an administrator, and it can be performed in a variety of settings. Best yet, the technique is considered to be functionally autonomous because the athlete is in control of himself.

Procedure for Relaxation Training

1) Conditions:

Find a nice quiet room where you will be free from the distractions of stereo, TV, or telephones for at least an hour. Lie on your back with both arms at your sides. Close your eyes.

Create for yourself a passive attitude. Free your mind of all thoughts and worries. This is the single most important consideration in eliciting relaxation. 

2) Identifying Stress, Tension, and Relaxation:

In this technique you will practice direct muscle relaxation by learning to recognize when tension and stress if present in various muscle groups. Then you will learn how to bring about deep relaxation of these muscle groups by engaging in a series of exercises.

The first thing you are going to do is learn to recognize the sensation of delicate muscular contraction. After a few minutes of quiet rest, direct your attention to your right hand. Then very slowly begin to bend your hand back at the wrist. A you do this, concentrate on the way the back of your hand feels. You want to detect the first slight indication that something is happening. This feeling is tension. Don't exert too much force though. If you feel sensations in the upper arm or biceps, you are making too much of an effort. If that is the case. put your hand back on the bed, rest a few minutes, and then repeat the procedure.

Always rest between trials so that fatigue is not a determining factor in your performance. Once again, remember that what you want to experience and detect is the first slight sensations of tension you experience when you bend your hand back. The objective is for you to learn to recognize this feeling whenever and wherever it occurs in your body. This is not as easy ass it might seem at first. Tension signals are very slight and fleeting. They're not that easy to recognize. Don't rush through the procedure. Take your time and make sure that you  can identify the sensations of tension before you go on. Sometimes several practice sessions are necessary to master this sensation.

If you are positive that you can identify the sensation of tension no matter where it should occur in your body, you are ready to learn to recognize another sensation - strain.

Once again, you will have to lie down on your back with your eyes closed and your arms at your sides. After a few minutes of quiet rest, lift your right arm so that your forearm is vertical and resting on the surface of the bed. Now slowly bend your wrist back toward your shoulder. As you do so, concentrate on the sensations in your forearm. Do you recognize these sensations? I hope so, because it's tension again. Now direct your attention to the back of your wrist. Push your wrist back towards your shoulder as far as it will go, and then hold it there steadily. You should be experiencing a new feeling, a new sensation distinctly different from tension. It's called strain.

The sensations of tension and strain only vaguely resemble each other, and you should have little difficulty distinguishing between them. However, this is not to say that you will be able to do this without training. On the contrary, your chances of actually identifying these sensations without practice are slim.

What you need to do is repeatedly observe these sensations until you have distinctly recorded them in your memory banks. If you persist, if you work hard and diligently, you will be able to detect these sensations in a mere fraction of the time they were presented in the experiment. Having recognized the undesirable, you must now reverse the process of creating tension and strain and arrive at the absence of muscular tension. This is the state of relaxation. The important thing about relaxation is that no effort is required to reach this particular state. In fact, that's the secret; no work, no effort, as if your source of power has failed and your muscular structure has disintegrated. The feeling you are seeking is a complete lack of tension and strain.

Once again, assume a reclined position with your arms at your sides and your eyes closed. After a few moments of quiet rest, direct your attention to your right hand. Just as before, slowly bend your hand back at the wrist. Immediately you should be able to detect the sensation of tension. Don't stop though; bend your hand back as far as you can. The sensation you are experiencing now, of course, is strain. Hold your hand in this position for about twenty seconds, then turn off your source of power, let your arm drift back to your side, and concentrate on this feeling of relaxation. Remember, you want complete nothingness, no work, no effort, just complete physical relaxation. Relax a few minutes, then try once more. Do this same exercise over and over until your mind can remember the feeling of deep relaxation. Practice recalling this sensation until you are positive that you can recognize the sensation and attain it without the preliminaries.

3) All Together Now

Now it is time for you to put it all together. Your awareness of tension, strain, and relaxation are all in an effort to produce total physiological relaxation. A more conducive atmosphere for this type of experimentation is a room that is dimly illuminated or completely dark. Your body should be clothed in an attire that will not restrict your movements in any way. Pajamas or slacks are preferable.

When you are ready, lie down on your back with your arms at your sides and your eyes closed. A pillow or rolled-up towel should be placed under your neck and under your knees. Your entire body should be supported as evenly and comfortably as possible, with your head on the same level as your body. When you tighten the muscles of your body, try to think of these muscles as being made of rubber, rope, or rubber bands stretched tightly. Also,  try to adopt the attitude that when you relax your muscles, your body will continue into deep relaxation, even after you can no longer feel it do so. You should take at least twenty seconds or more on each muscle group.

After a few minutes of quiet rest, direct your attention to your toes. This is where we are going to start. Curl your toes under and squeeze them very tightly. Do you remember that sensation? It's tension. While you hold your toes in that position, try to visualize the muscles that you are using. Think of them as if they are rubber bands being stretched tightly across your feet. Now, ever so slowly and passively, let them relax. Visualize these muscles going limp, as if being drained of all their strength. You know that you are looking for that sensation of relaxation; that feeling of nothingness, complete nothingness. Next, extend your toes and bring them toward your body. Tighten up these muscles so that you are aware of the areas and the sensations involved . . . very tight . . . very tense . . . and then let them go . . . power off.

Your legs are next. Push them straight out with your heels toward the floor and your toes pointing straight ahead. Tighten up your calf and thigh muscles as if they are rubber bands pulling tight. Concentrate deeply on the sensation there. Then let them go limp . . . no energy . . . total relaxation . . . limp and relaxed . . . light and strengthless.

Now concentrate on your buttocks. Push your lower thigh against the pillow that you placed under your legs, tightening up all the muscles of your rump. Make them very tight and very tense as you concentrate on the sensations that you are experiencing in these muscles. Then slowly and progressively relax them. Remember the feeling? Relaxation - the zero feeling. Now take a deep breath and hod it and at the same time, arch your back slowly, tightening up the muscles of your back. Concentrate on these muscles . . . as if they are strong rubber bands pulling tighter. Concentrate on the sensations that are taking place within them. Now slowly exhale, loosening up the muscles of your back. As you do so, think "power off . . . going limp." You know the feeling we are after.

Your arms are next. Lift them towards the ceiling with the fingers extended. Push them straight up as hard as you can, tightening up the muscles in your arms. Then slowly make a fist . . . squeeze your fingers together very tightly . . . visualize the muscles pulling tighter and tighter. Now, ever so slowly, begin to bend your elbow, bringing your fist down to your shoulder, keeping the muscles in your hands and arms very tight. Keep thinking of these muscles as being rubber ropes or bands being stretched tight, and of the sensations  that you are experiencing in them. Now slowly and passively let your arms drift to your sides . . . turning everything off . . . nothingness . . . the zero feeling. That is what we want, complete nothingness.

Next, move your head forward until your chin touches your chest, tightening up the muscles in the back of your neck. These muscles are very close to the nerve trucks descending from your brain and therefore are of particular importance in relaxation. Concentrate on the muscles you are using and the sensations of tension that exist. Once again, slowly and progressively relax these muscles, letting your head fall back to a comfortable position on the bed.

Next, squeeze your eyes tightly shut. Think of the muscles you are using and the sensations that are involved. Now relax them, and let these muscles drift into the zero state.

Work next on the speech region. Put your lips together as if your were blowing up a balloon, tightening up your facial muscles. Think of these muscles as if rubber bands were pulling them tighter and tighter. Concentrate on the sensations that are involved. Then, slowly blow out the air, letting your muscles go limp and loose. Relaxation . . . total relaxation . . . nothingness.

Finally, tighten up all the muscles of your body. Point your toes straight in front of you. Push your arms straight into the air. Arch your back straight into the air. Arch your back slightly. Put your chin on your chest and blow out your cheeks. Contract all these muscles very tightly, tighter and tighter and tighter. Concentrate on the sensations in these areas. Then turn yourself completely off. Let your feet go limp, your arms drift lazily back to your sides, your head back into the pillow, and exhale. Just let yourself sink into nothingness . . . the . . . zero . . . state . . . complete physiological relaxation.

Concentrate on each exercise until you are able to bring about deep relaxation in that particular muscle group. Once again, patience is the key. Don't rush it! It's a good idea to practice this technique every night. An encouraging note is that once you have learned DMR, it is yours for the rest of your life.

This relaxation not only applies to sports, but to all anxiety-provoking situations that life may hold.

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