How to manage stress and intrusive thoughts? Sports psychologist responds.

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Sports psychologist Andreja Holsedl explains how to manage stress and intrusive thoughts in sports.
How to manage stress and intrusive thoughts? Sports psychologist responds.

As an endurance athlete, you are under stress. Intense exercise causes regular release of the stress hormone cortisol in your body. This problem is exacerbated by an inadequate intake of nutrients aka carbohydrates.

Stress is often psychological. It is difficult to find anyone who is never under stress, and due to competitions and severe expectations, stress is even more prominent in athletes.

"Stress is our psychological and physical response to potential stressors," explains sports psychologist Andreja Holsedl. "That's why in a certain situation some people feel stressed and others don't. It happens within, it's our response. But this is good. It means our response can be improved."

First you must recognize stress

Sports psychologist Andreja Holsedl states that first you must discover which situations in life or sports cause you discomfort and anxiety.

"We know when we are nervous or tired. We feel the changes, such as increased pulse, sweating, faster breathing, unease. We must recognize these situations, as they lead to stress," says Andreja.

Once you learn to recognize these situations, you must ask yourself what is happening within you. Why do you react in a certain way? What are your thoughts, how do they make you feel, how does your body respond?

"It is important to recognize your stress response in a certain situation. The goal is to discover intrusive thoughts, which are often the main cause of stress."

"Many athletes don't recognize they are under stress. They are in denial. They see stress as a sign of weakness."

Stress and intrusive thoughts

Athletes often face intrusive thoughts.

  • The opponent is better prepared!
  • I will surely fail!
  • Am I good enough?
  • I must succeed!
  • I let everyone down!

Such thoughts have a negative impact. They cause stress and negatively influence your athletic performance.

"This is the main role of a sports psychologist. We must discover why someone has problems," explains sports psychologist Andreja Holsedl.

"There is no one-fits-all solution. But there are common factors. Expectations, goals, intrusive thoughts, worries, rules ... If we want to change the behavior, we must change and remove these thoughts."

How to stop intrusive thoughts?

If we want to stop intrusive thoughts, we need self-awareness," warns Andreja. "A sports psychologist has the knowledge to discover what is going on in an athlete."

A sports psychologist will quickly recognize intrusive thoughts. The real challenge is to discover the deeper convictions that fuel these thoughts. This is usually done through individual counseling, but you could attempt to do it yourself.

But you should know that thoughts cannot be suppressed. "If I tell you not to think about the pink elephant, you will think about the pink elephant. It's normal. It's how our brains function," explains Andreja. "If you don't want to think about a specific thing, you will think about it even more. That's why we need to find another way."

"Imagine a plastic duck in the water. The more you try to submerge it, the more it rises to the surface. Let it stay there. It's the same with thought. Let it stay there. It's just a thought. It doesn't mean it's real," says Andreja. 

You can calm your thoughts by finding counter-arguments. But this can be a difficult process, that's why sports psychologist Andreja Holsedl recommends that you begin with a sports psychologist. It allows you to learn the proper technique.

Once you learn how to self-talk, control your thoughts, change your way of thinking, once you are able to create some distance between you and your thoughts, then you can begin the process of stopping intrusive thoughts.

But this doesn't mean you will be able to eliminate stress completely.

"Intrusive thoughts must be detected and changed at all levels. They will still occur, but they surely won't be as detrimental to your performance as before."

How to manage stress?

Sports psychologist Andreja Holsedl explains that it's not possible to completely eliminate stress. It is difficult not to feel or not to think, as we are beings capable of that. In fact, it would be sad if that weren't the case.

So, stress can't be eliminated, but you can change your attitude towards it. It's about your interpretation of external and internal stressors, which determines your experience of stress.

"Experienced athletes are good at dealing with stress. This doesn't mean they don't feel stress, it's just that they learned how to deal with it," explains Andreja. "In psychology, we call that 'flow'. It's a state in which we feel pleasant."

But this is not a state you should try to force. Stress is normal and we all have to deal with it. In a certain period, such as during an important competition, there are many external stressors. You can accept that and adapt to that.

But at some point, you must draw the line. If the period of stress drags too long, it will harm you. "The period of stress must end somewhere. Unfortunately, I notice that in sports it often doesn't end. That's not good," warns Andreja.

"The goal is to enable the athlete to develop their full potential and achieve the best possible results. But you need to find a balance. That's essential."

"We often think that if we want to improve, we need to try harder. That is often not true. We also need to rest. Rest is crucial to improvement."

Can I manage stress with nutrition?

Managing your thoughts, correct nutrition, healthy lifestyle – all these factors affect stress. There is no one without the other.

During intense exercise, it is essential to intake a sufficient amount of energy aka carbohydrates, as the lack of energy is one of the main factors which influence the release of the stress hormone cortisol.

But, as explained by sports psychologist Andreja Holsedl, nutrition alone is not enough. It's a combination of factors that form the big picture.

"Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, intrusive thoughts ... All this causes stress," says Andreja.

You can't remove stress with nutrition alone, but it's an important piece of the puzzle.

Conclusion

All athletes face stress, which is caused by external and internal stressors.

It is important to recognize stress.

One of the factors that greatly influences stress is intrusive thoughts. You must detect and change intrusive thoughts. A sports psychologist can help you accomplish this.

Stress is also influenced by a healthy lifestyle and correct nutrition.

Stress is a normal part of life, which you can't fully eliminate, but you can learn to manage it and change it into something positive for your athletic performance.

Andreja Holsedl is a University Graduate in Psychology, licensed sports psychologist, and one of the leading experts in the field of practical sports psychology in Slovenia. Through individual counseling, workshops, lectures, trainings, various programs, and projects she cooperates with athletes of all levels and disciplines, coaches, parents, sports clubs, associations, and sports schools. For many years, she was an active road cyclist at a professional level. After finishing her studies, she became an independent sports psychologist. In the last 10 years, she has dealt with all sports, above all soccer, ski jumps, tennis, judo, track and field, triathlon, cycling, basketball, and climbing. In her practice, she uses behavioral-cognitive therapy, which is confirmed by science to be the most efficient for work with athletes.