The Road to Gold is Paved with Brave Behaviour
Watching the Olympics never ceases to inspire me. Since I’m a psychologist, not an athlete, I might notice different things than the average sports enthusiast. Although the physicality of the athletes obviously impresses me, it is their mental strength and resilience that I wish to reflect upon in this blog post.
One thing I love about the Olympics is watching people fall. I’m not talking about a fall where an athlete gets injured – I don’t like that kind of fall. But I like the “normal” falls. I love seeing the best of the best fall down and get back up again. I love seeing the best of the best fall and still win a gold medal. It is so inspiring, and it’s an excellent reminder to us all.
It’s easy to get stuck thinking the world will end if we “fall” – if we fail, if we get rejected, if we lose. If we think that way, we will generally feel anxious about falling. Since feeling anxious is uncomfortable and unpleasant, we may go out of our way to avoid falling. The only problem is that the more we avoid falling, the less opportunity we have to learn how to fall and how to get back up again. The reality is that no one likes to fall. Falling is not fun. But not reaching our full potential isn’t so fun either. If we don’t challenge ourselves and take some risks, we will never win the gold – whatever our personal version of gold is.
Living with anxiety is hard. Taking risks can be harder for people who have anxiety because they may tend to overestimate the threat or danger and underestimate their ability to cope.
If we want to live our fullest lives – if we want to go for the gold – then we need to consider facing fears, and the prospect that we may face plant in the process. Every athlete in the Olympic games has a failure or two (thousand?) under his or her belt. Learning does not always come easy. When learning to manage your anxiety, it can be helpful to know that there will be both ups and downs along the way.
Figuring out where to start isn’t always easy when it comes to becoming an Anxiety Management medalist. We wouldn’t expect someone to be able to do a salchow, axel or a lutz (figure skating jumps), without first learning to skate. The same goes for learning to deal with anxiety, you want to start with the basics. Here are five tips (one for each Olympic ring) to get you on your way.
Tip 1: Learn about anxiety
Anxiety Canada has great resources for adults and youth.
Anxiety 101: What You Need to Know About Anxiety - https://www.anxietycanada.com/adults/anxiety-101
Anxiety 102: More Facts About Anxiety - https://www.anxietycanada.com/adults/anxiety-102-more-facts
Anxiety 101: http://youth.anxietycanada.com/anxiety-101
Tip 2: Figure out what your gold is
Now there is no magic wand we can wave to make the anxiety go away, but for a moment, pretend that there is. Ask yourself, “If anxiety wasn’t an issue for me, what would I be doing? Where would I be? Whom would I be with?”
Figuring what you want to accomplish and visualizing your goals can help you determine what fears you need to face. Not every athlete makes it to the Olympics and not every Olympian gets the gold, but they usually get to choose what sport to play. To tolerate some discomfort and anxiety, it is helpful to think about what is more important to you than avoiding anxiety. Think about "What do I want more?” What is my gold? What do I value? What’s worth falling for?
Once you figure out what you want to be doing, you can start working toward making it happen. It will take time, practice, and patience.
Scientific research shows that “exposure” is one of the most effective ways of overcoming fears. Exposure involves facing your fears and doing the things you have been avoiding.
When you start to face your fears, you will likely notice that you may begin to feel more anxious. You may catch yourself thinking, "I don’t want to feel more anxious, I want to feel less anxious.” That's normal.
When dealing with anxiety – facing fears or “exposure” is like making an investment. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. Or, in this case, you may feel more anxious in the short term to feel less anxious in the long run. You can take this knowledge and use it as motivation for tolerating the anxiety that arises as you work toward your goals. Think of the Olympics - a skater who can fall trying a difficult jump may still win the gold because of his or her overall program scores. Skaters who never try any difficult jumps probably won’t be contenders. And skaters who don’t practice, don’t get the gold.
So – practice, practice, practice brave behaviour.
Tip 4: Find a coach
You don’t have to go through anxiety problems alone. Talk to someone. Ask for help.
Much as it is helpful for Olympic athletes to have coaches, it is beneficial to have the help of a trained mental health professional to help you with the process of facing your fears. A trained Cognitive Behaviour Therapist (CBT) will be able to help you learn the skills involved in “exposure”, which includes making a list of fears, breaking things up into smaller steps, rating your fears, building a fear ladder, and climbing your fear ladder (facing fears or exposure), practicing and rewarding brave behaviour (remember – even in the Olympics – you still get points for the stuff you did well, even if you fall or lose). Unfortunately, not everyone has access to a CBT expert. Although Anxiety Canada does not replace professional help, Anxiety Canada does offer resources that can help you learn to face your fears.
Anxiety Canada has information on how to do “exposure” or face your fears for adults https://www.anxietycanada.com/adults/facing-your-fears-exposure and youth http://youth.anxietycanada.com/facing-fears.
So when you fall down (and we all fall down), remind yourself that even the best of the best have both ups and downs. Setting yourself up for success includes making room for failure and anxiety.
Tip 5: Watch out for “Thinking Traps”
Thinking traps are types or patterns of thoughts that tend to trap us in anxiety. It’s easy to fall into these traps. For example, we can get stuck focusing on the “worst-case scenario” (e.g., exaggerating how badly something will turn out and how we will be unable to cope). It’s also easy to think in extreme (all-or-nothing) terms and view things as either perfect or a complete failure.
Falling into thinking traps without realizing it can make it harder to get back up again. Fortunately, there are things you can do to recognize and deal with thinking traps. Learn more about thinking traps for adults https://www.anxietycanada.com/parents/new-moms/thinking-flexibly/recognize-thinking-traps and for youth http://youth.anxietycanada.com/thinking-traps.
The last place athlete in a race at the Olympics is still a champion. The worst team at the Olympics is full of the best athletes of an entire country. You can be your own worst critic (thinking trap alert) or you can be your best cheerleader. When you're working towards your anxiety management goals, remind yourself that the road to gold is paved with brave behaviour. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to win them all. Keep on working, keep on learning, and ride your own ride.
You can fall and feel anxious AND Go for the GOLD!
Dr. Melanie Badali, R.Psych.
Dr. Melanie Badali is a Registered Psychologist and is CACBT-ACTCC certified in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. She is on the Board of Directors at Anxiety Canada and practices at the North Shore Stress and Anxiety Clinic.