Can butterflies really turn into full-blown anxiety and create worry, doubt and fear? Years ago, I’d get ready to give a presentation and my nerves would pop up. For me, the nerves start with the physical manifestation and then move to my brain. It would start with butterflies in my stomach and an increase in heart rate. Then it would lead to me thinking all kinds of negative, irrational stuff.

What was the outcome? Inevitably I’d get on stage and feel nervous. I’d stumble through the first five minutes stuttering. Yes, stuttering.

Recognize Anxiety

When I realized what was going on (after much insight gained through my M.A. in sport psychology), I knew I needed to change what was happening prior to my presentations. It was time to develop a pre-presentation routine. I tried several things – music, movies and meditation. They all helped to a degree, but I still wasn’t feeling as confident as I would like.

My next step was to develop a mantra, something short and sweet that would calm the nerves and get me feeling excited about presenting. My mantra was and still is, “I am so excited.” I sometimes add, “I can’t wait to do this!” My nerves start the night before a presentation. As soon as I start to feel the nerves, I say my mantra, out loud (if I am alone) or in my head. Two seconds later, when the nerves pop up again, I say my mantra. Two seconds after that, when they are still there, I say my mantra again. It takes some persistence.

Reality of Anxiety

Anxiety is something everyone deals with at some level. There are three important things to understand about anxiety:

1. Nerves, which we often interpret as anxiety, don’t have to get that big. Learn to let the nervous thoughts flow in and flow out. If you add to those thoughts, you make them bigger, and that’s when the thoughts grow and become full-blown anxiety. 2. Nerves will always exist. They are the way our brain tells our body that something big or important is about to happen. 3. You do have a choice how you deal with them.

Anxiety is a negative emotional state often characterized by worry, doubt, fear and nervousness. Anxiety appears cognitively through worry and fear. It also appears somatically through things like butterflies and increased heart rate.

There are many theories on anxiety. One is called catastrophe theory. Catastrophe theory states that low worry, increased arousal, and somatic anxiety are related to performance in an inverted U-way. With a lot of worry, the increases in arousal improve performance to a person’s optimal zone. If arousal continues beyond the zone, there is a rapid and dramatic decline in performance. Once a person’s performance has rapidly declined due to increased arousal levels, they would need to greatly decrease their physiological arousal before being able to regain previous performance levels.

Key Considerations of Anxiety

There are four key considerations to think about when it comes to anxiety:

1. Identify your optimal arousal-related emotions. Think of arousal as an emotional temperature and arousal regulation skills as a thermostat. Your goal is to find your optimal emotional temperature (under what conditions you perform optimally) and then learn how to regulate your thermostat. Regulating your thermostat is done by either psyching up or psyching down. 2. Recognize how your personal and situational factors interact. It’s important to understand the interaction of personal factors (self-esteem, state, and trait anxiety) and situational factors (event importance and uncertainty) to get the best predictor of arousal, state anxiety and performance. 3. Recognize your signs of arousal and anxiety. You can better understand your anxiety level when you become familiar with the signs and symptoms of increased stress and anxiety. Learn how to regulate the levels of symptoms based on your optimal performance level. The quantity of symptoms depends on the individual. It’s the quality that’s important to keep in mind. Try to notice changes in these variables between low-and high-stress environments and learn to make changes when necessary. Here are some of them:

Signs of Anxiety Cold, clammy hands, Butterflies, Feeling ill Frequent urination, Profuse sweating, Headache Negative self-talk, Cotton mouth, Increased muscle tension, Difficulty sleeping, Inability to concentrate

4. Develop your confidence and perceptions of control. You can develop confidence by being positive and putting yourself in positive situations/environments. When you are positive, you surround yourself with other positive people and positive situations/environments. One other way to develop confidence is by learning to feel okay about mistakes.

Deal With Anxiety

Self-reflection is a critical component of being a consistent athlete. After a performance, write down how you felt before, during and afterwards (positive and negative). Keep track of your thoughts, feelings, physiological symptoms, your perception about whether the performance was easy, moderate or hard; what importance did you place on it, etc. You can use this information to become aware of what helps you play well and what gets in the way of your performance. Self-reflection allows you to see the patterns and adjust the negatives to make a more positive change.

Other techniques to deal with anxiety:

Smile when you feel the anxiety. It’s difficult to be mad when you are smiling, and it takes the edge off anxiety-producing situations. •Think fun. Highly skilled athletes have a sense of enjoyment and fun while they are performing. Most of them look forward to the challenge of pressure situations. This does not mean they don’t get nervous. •Breathe. Breath control and focus produce energy and reduce tension. •Use a mantra. Saying and thinking personally-generated positive words or phrases can be energizing and activating. Some examples are: I can do it, push to the top, I can present this material as well as anyone else, etc. •Build confidence with a pre-performance routine. Once you perfect some of the techniques for dealing with your anxiety, you can incorporate these into a pre-performance routine. A pre- performance routine is a systematic sequence of preparatory thoughts and activities you use to concentrate effectively before performing. These routines help train your mind to focus on what’s important versus focus on the anxiety. By concentrating on each step of a well-thought-out routine, you learn to focus on what is in your control.

Don’t try these for the first time the day of your performance. All the above techniques for dealing with anxiety take practice. It’s something that you want to get in the habit of developing during less-pressure training sessions, so you have a fully developed, personalized plan for the big game day, just as you would do for the physical aspects of your performance.

Transform Your Anxiety Into Your Zone

Your performance can be hindered significantly by how far your anxiety pushes your level of arousal. At the lower end of the arousal scale, an athlete is not aroused enough to perform optimally. With a little psyching up, you can find your zone or optimal performance level. This zone is very small as compared to the lower and upper ends of the arousal scale. That is why it takes a lot of awareness, understanding and refinement to stay in that zone and not drop off the other side into the psyched-out zone, where performance drastically declines.

Remember, you aren’t going to change your anxiety levels overnight, but the great news is you can immediately begin to become aware of what your anxiety levels are and almost immediately figure out how to work on regulating your anxiety for optimal performance.

Dr. Cleere is an Elite Performance Expert and can be reached through her website She can also be accessed on Facebook and Twitter.
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