What Do Nerves Have To Do With It?


When I returned to show jumping three years ago I found myself unbelievably nervous on the day of competition up until I was completely done riding. I applied my arsenal of mental practice and brain training tools and made a bit of headway. But honestly, I struggled with very uncomfortable nerves until recently. I started recalling the physiological reasons for the surges and heart palpitations I felt as my turn to go in the ring approached. I knew that most of what was happening was a normal biological response to athletic performance. I wanted to shift my relationship to it. I started focusing my self-talk and the way I described the discomfort and directly shifting the stress hormones being released in my body. In other words, the mind influences the body as much as the body influences the mind!

Walking courses and preparing to go in the show ring has changed dramatically as I have refined my relationship to the energy surges I feel before competing. I now view the discomfort as essential and welcome the hype as I know it will translate into fuel and razor sharp focus when I need it. Last week I jumped 4 rounds of 1.20 on my wonderful horse D’Artagnan VK. My pre-game jitters, energy surges, heightened sensitivity, and increased digestion are all welcome now.

On Classic Day I woke before my alarm and felt an empowered clarity. As the morning progressed, I felt blasts of energy and occasional shaking as if I was cold. But the whole time I was able to remind myself that this song and dance with my body can be influenced by the words I use to describe it. So one by one I addressed the symptoms and gave them a useful power. I called the energy surges fuel, the jitters are brain receptors lining up for heightened focus, and the sensitivity is my intuition deepening for a thorough connection with my horse. I can report feeling excited and centered at the back gate each time I went in the ring last week. This sensation allowed me to lay down four solid, respectable rides. More importantly though, I was not derailed or depleted by nerves and fear. I had fun, kept it somewhat light, and enjoyed flying lessons with D’Artagnan.

In order to keep training myself to sustain awareness about how I narrate my experiences in life, I pay attention to my physiological reactions to stimuli daily and stay aware of the words I use to describe these observations. Again, the words I use to describe my life become my reality. This is the mental piece of the equation.

Below is a description of the physiological piece. Understanding both how your body naturally reacts to stress and how your mind is conditioned to describe these intrinsic processes are essential to shifting fear or dis-ease into prowess and confidence. With this understanding you can deepen your relationship to your mind-body connection.

What Are Nerves Made Of?

Nerves are made of a combination of hormones that are released to protect the body when fear is perceived.

Main Stress Hormones:

Adrenaline is produced and released by the adrenal glands after receiving a message from the brain that a life threatening or stressful event is happening engaging a fight-flight-freeze response. It literally carries nerve impulses throughout the body giving it an electro-chemical nature. It is responsible for the immediate reaction one feels when stressed. The results are that the heart escalates intensely, breathing increases, muscles tense, airways dilate, and one may even sweat. Additionally the body has a surge of energy that is used to run from the proverbial saber toothed tiger (aka danger). Initially adrenaline may have been the cause of human survival and now it is an intrinsic part of athletic performance

Norepinephrine is very similar to adrenaline and is in a sense a back up system for the body in case adrenaline is not released or not enough to keep the body safe. It activates blood flow in the muscles, including the brain, causing an increase in energy and focus and clarity.

Cortisol is considered to be the “stress hormone” and is also released by the adrenal glands. It takes longer to take effect as it goes through a few areas of the brain as it gathers steam and takes longer to deactivate as well. Ultimately it helps maintain fluid balance and blood pressure while deemphasizing digestion, reproductive and immune systems that are not essential when running for your life. Cortisol stimulates the liver to rapidly release unwanted toxins, typically increasing the need to urinate and/or defecate. It is an anti-inflammatory that instantly and temporarily reduces inflammation, allowing the body to run faster without potentially hindering pain.

When a stress response is signaled the sympathetic nervous system kicks off a series of hormonal responses including adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol to activate the body to regain safety. This all occurs before the brain’s visual centers have had a chance to process the precipitating event. If the brain continues to perceive danger, cortisol is repeatedly released.

How Do You Stop and Reset?

A relaxation response is needed to trigger the body to stop protecting itself. Rhythmic belly breathing, visualizing a calm scenario, listening to music, or repeating a mantra can all have a calming effect. Each athlete needs to learn to control the adrenal responses in order to produce athletic results and not have focus and ability over-ridden by fear. Another approach to balancing the necessary stress responses of athletic training and performance is stimulating the anti-stress hormone, oxytocin. This can be done by doing any of the above actions or by touching yourself skin to skin like clasping hands together or placing a hand on your heart, rubbing the thigh, or increasing kind, compassionate self-talk.

Ultimately shifting psychological stress (as opposed to physiological) requires shifting the athlete’s interpretation of the stress-producing stimuli and increasing awareness of the physiological signs of the various forms of stress. Since adrenaline is essential for peak performance, athletes need to become acutely aware of the experience of increased adrenaline so as to be able to welcome the slightly overwhelming experience of increased sensory stimulation. Self-talk needs to be intentional as adrenaline increases, allowing the brain to normalize the perception of this discomfort thereby reducing the need for a cortisol release that typically supports survival when danger is perceived.

Additionally and equally important is the come down process for the mind and body. Consciously allowing the body to regulate and rebalance after competition will stop the cortisol release that can continue for up to 48 hours if not intentionally interrupted. Drink plenty of water, intentionally slow respirations and focus on returning to the body. Allow your mind to slow down and resist the urge to continually review mistakes or challenges from the round. This practice will also let the adrenaline reduce naturally, encouraging thirst, appetite and regular body functions to return.

Change Comes Through Awareness

As I return to the show ring again this week, I will take on a new challenge as I slip a 1.30 round into my schedule. I am sure the increased challenge will give me an opportunity to practice and refine the language I use with myself as I push past the chemical blends that support me to reach toward peak performance. As I sit in my office on a chilly spring evening and ponder it, I feel a quiet confidence. I will call upon this moment when I feel overpowering waves of energy pulse through me on game day. Stay tuned for a follow up post on how that all goes!

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