White Bears and Gymnasts’ Fears
On the count of three, don’t think of white bears.
How did that work out for you?
You thought of white bears, didn’t you?
Don’t worry. It’s inevitable. The mere act of trying not to think of white bears causes you to think of them. And, if you are stressed out, tired or distracted, the chances are you will have even a more difficult time not thinking of white bears.
Our brains work such that trying not to think about something means that it is never far from your mind. When you try to push it away, it rushes back in.
The same reaction occurs when we tell our athletes (or ourselves) not to be afraid.
Suppressing anxiety causes our brains to keep those feelings close, causing us continue to revisit those feelings, ultimately believing they are true because it is in your mind.
And if you are an athlete that is prone to anxiety, things get even worse. Turns out that people with anxiety have even more difficulty controlling their thoughts than the average person, causing their stress center to overact. In combination with that, when they try to change thinking (“Not thinking of the white bear”), the part of their brain that pushes thoughts aside is underactive, making that task even harder.
So, instead of not thinking of the white bear (or fear), what is fearful athlete to do?
Try this instead: Just stop, observe and accept your feelings, even the scary ones. The goal is not to get rid of anxiety but to develop a trust that they can deal with it. When worry comes up, notice what you are thinking, feel the anxiety in your body and continue to breath. Try imagining the thoughts and emotions dissolving with the breath.
Try talking yourself through it. Saying something like, “oh well, there’s that thought again—worries happen. That’s just the way the mind works, and it doesn’t mean anything.” Instead of telling yourself “I am always scared. There is nothing I can do. I suck.”
So notice your white bear (or fear). Greet it and observe it. Remember what your goals are, then politely tell the bear (or fear) they don’t have a place in your plan, breathe and send it on its way.
Don’t suppress it. That just gives it more power and space in your head.