Standing at the starting line of the Gasparilla 8K in Tampa, I had cleared my mind of just about everything in preparation for the race. But that had taken some work. My wife’s race started at six in the morning, so there was a bit of waiting around to do. Chasing out onto the course to see her pass by was a tiring run of a couple miles. It was hot out, and the thought of using energy any other way than running my race seemed like a dumb idea.
So I lay there half-snoozing on a row of uncomfortable chairs where a sports massage would soon be doling out muscle rubs for all those seeking help after their half marathon race.
That’s where my brain went to work digging up things to worry about.
That shouldn’t happen on a vacation trip, but it does. As a person who normally deals with inherent anxiety, I’ve grown adept at understanding that the anxious brain loves opportunities like that. “Why not fill the time?” it asks, as the monkey mind goes to work.
That’s why I’ve also developed a set of baseline strategies to keep the anxious mind in line. The first thing to understand is that typically, there’s nothing truly to worry about. So I use the phrase, “The drama is all inside your head” to cope with worry.
Pressure is self-inflicted
Former middle-distance world record holder Rick Wolhuter, who hails from my hometown of St. Charles, Illinois, once put it well. “Pressure is self-inflicted.”
That was way back in 1979 or so that he said that. But not much has changed about that simple principle. There are healthy kinds of pressure you put on yourself. That helps you train and prepare for a race or other event. There are also unhealthy kinds of pressure, the kind you let creep into your brain that is full of self-doubt and fear.
That’s the “drama inside your head.” You need to be the director of your own play, you see. Don’t let the many actors jumping around the stage of your thoughts take over the scene and ruin the whole play.
Acting the parts
In order to control the drama, it needs to be separated into parts. It’s like taking a stage full of manic-depressive actors aside and talking them down or up from their fear of doing their parts the right way.
The Family Budget Actor needs to be pulled aside where real money matters can be considered. Tally up the speech that actor has been practicing and break it down. Parse out what can be done immediately but know what needs to come next.
The Weepy Woman of Past Failures
That’s how the process works. Beware the Weepy Woman of Past Failures. She can drag the whole play to a screeching halt. And talk about drama! She’s wail about the reasons why you lost a job thirty years ago and try to make it seem like you’re in the same situation now. “Ohhhh nnooooooo!” she’ll moan. “I’ve seen this play beforrreeee!”
That’s how it goes. Round and round with ruminations and anxieties. All while you’re sitting there waiting for an 8K to start. That’s a pretty sorry mindset, but the anxious know how it works. Most of us figure out healthy strategies to calm the mind and quell the nerves.
Because you really don’t want that stuff roiling around in your mind during a race. It’s counterproductive to the thinking you really need to do in order to compete at your best. Besides, there are specific fears within the realm of swimming, riding and running that need to be addressed in the moment. Open water? Lots of hills? Heat or cold on the run? Yes these are legitimate concerns. So it helps to clear the mind.
It can also help to understand the things that stress you out in everyday life. Here’s a list of my little vexations. You’ve surely got your own. Do yourself a favor and write them down on paper. It is enormously empowering to have that list in front of you so you can organize the actors and put your drama in its place. Be the director of your fate.
- Passwords. Keeping track of passwords for websites and bill-paying stresses me out. They have to be changed all the time and it’s hard to keep them all in one place. Then you go to pay a bill and realize it’s the wrong or outdated password you just changed and have to start all over again. Then the site tells you: “You cannot use a previous password for this site.” Aaaaahhhhhhh!
- Social media. The stress of participating in social media is now being recognized as an actual detriment to our emotional health. When people post about their success and such, it puts pressure on us to compete. Then there are political fights, arguments over issues and flat out volumes of information to take in. Stressful.
- Smartphones. Our devices actually function to re-wire our brains. All that instant response amounts to chemical changes in the brain that function like sugar-cravings or even drug addiction. Dopamine is a real thing. It produces cycles that we don’t even know we’re enduring.
- Diet and nutrition. It’s really hard to eat well these days. There is sugar in everything we eat, it seems. Then there’s the debate over which is worse for our bodies, carbohydrates or fat? It all adds up to a daily stress less in trying to avoid eating things that will kill us.
- Sex as a taboo. Don’t get me wrong. Sex is wonderful. Most of us appreciate a healthy sex life. I think it’s healthy that the buttocks of the world are no longer considered taboo, and that nipples and even a camel toe or dick through a pair of shorts is no longer scandalous. By contrast, it is the repression of healthy body image the realities of sex and gender and orientation that are vexing society.
- Politics. You all know my views. These are devastating times and there is not a day where the Orange Liar does not perpetrate another scandal against the Republic.
- Dreams. Are just weird. They take all these anxieties and combine them in a Moulin Rouge of tortured sleep.
- Fears. There is no greater stress than basic fear. As FDR once said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But that’s the hardest thing in the world to manage.
- Work. I love my current job and it is relatively stress-free except for the part where social media drives opinions that simply aren’t true, and it’s my job to provide accurate information to quell them.
- Age. I don’t really stress emotionally over age, but it is a stress on its own as the body changes and the face wrinkles and time works its wonders.
Fortunately, there is one sure cure for all these stresses. And that is gratitude. Being grateful for what you have and what you can do rather than what you can’t is the surest way to get your stress actors to settle down and behave.
Be grateful. Then be calm. Find peace. And go run or ride or swim. Those are the best pathways to gratitude.