Fight or Flight: Understanding Anxiety in Swimming


With the Olympic trials around the corner and hundreds of swimmers trying to make qualifying times, sometimes what separates those who make it from those who don’t is their ability to control their nerves. In this first of a three part “swimming anxiety” series, we will address the concept of anxiety and how it manifests itself both physically and psychologically. 


What is anxiety?

Whether you call it anxiety, nerves, or pre-race jitters, it’s all part of the same physiological mechanism. All animals (humans included) have what’s called the “fight-or-flight” response in which our mind and body prepare either to fight a challenge or to run away from it. This response naturally gives us the extra “umph” to battle through competition. Typically, when the mind recognizes an upcoming challenge it causes our heart rate to increase, our muscles to tighten, and our thoughts to narrow. We need a certain amount of physiological and mental energy so we can be ready to compete, but too much can be a problem. Therefore, anxiety can be just as helpful as it is harmful-it all depends on the extent to which you experience it and your ability manage the symptoms of anxiety.


To throw in a little science, there are two types of anxiety:

  1. Somatic (the body)- physiological arousal

a. There are varying degrees of somatic anxiety and individuals have an ideal level of physiological activation/somatic anxiety under which they perform their best.

b. Some signs of somatic anxiety:

    • Shaking Hands
    • Tight muscles
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Rapid breathing
    • Increased heart rate
    • Sweating
    • Need to urinate
    • Sleep disruption

2. Cognitive (the mind)- detrimental changes in thoughts or emotions
a. It’s often an individual’s negative or worried thoughts which lead to performance declines.
b. Signs of cognitive anxiety include:

    • Worried thoughts
    • Narrowed focus
    • Irrational thoughts
    • Emotional instability
    • Impaired attention and concentration
    • Difficulty planning and making decisions

The biochemistry of these anxiety symptoms is quite complex, with adrenalin being a prime chemical involved in these reactions. Serotonin, dopamine, and nor-epinephrine are involved as well. The balance of these chemicals is a determinant of the extent of your symptoms and your control over them. Keep in mind that common behaviors can cause physiological reactions that mimic (or amplify) panic and anxiety, such as:


  • Consuming high doses of caffeine
  • Consuming high concentrations of sugar
  • Taking recreational drugs

What’s the difference between anxiety and a panic attack?
Though they have many of the same somatic and cognitive symptoms listed above, the symptoms of a panic attack are more intense and often disproportionate to the situation. Anxiety symptoms typically are much more controllable and tend to linger longer. A panic attack comes on suddenly and consists of an overwhelming sense of fear. At its extreme, panic can be very disabling and can feel like you are having a heart attack or are unable to breathe. Because the “fight or flight” mechanism is overactive while a panic attack is happening, you can behave and think irrationally (you might suddenly “freeze up” in the water, think you are dying, or grab the person next to you for safety). 


What causes anxiety?
Anxiety can have a number of causes, including both external challenges (the upcoming race) and internal stressors (worries, what-ifs). Reactions to internal stressors can be just as strong as reactions to external challenges. That is, we can feel just as nervous worrying about a race the night before as we do when we are actually standing behind the blocks.


We create our own anxiety when we focus either on the what-ifs (ex: What if I lose? What if I swim poorly? What if I don’t make the qualifying time?) or when we lack confidence in our abilities (often causing these “what-ifs”). Think of a race you had that wasn’t important to you or where you knew you would win it easily. You probably didn’t have the same signs of anxiety because you didn’t see this event as being “pressure packed” or challenging. The perception of a challenge or of pressure can make athletes feel anxious. Therefore, a specific race or situation only produces an anxious response if we choose to interpret that situation as an important challenge.


Anxiety can be normal and, in many cases, necessary to prime your body to perform. The swimmers who consistently perform well do so by practicing controlling their physiological arousal and their thoughts so their anxiety does not become overwhelming and detrimental to performance.


Part II in this series of articles will focus on how to create the mind of a champion by alleviating the cognitive and physiological signs of anxiety.

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