the adrenalin rush

Monday, April 11, 2011

There are many people who have a great golf game but just a few of them get to play the Masters in Augusta. While their swings are pure, their knowledge of golf strategy superb, there remains a wide chasm between elite and the rest of the world. Only a few players can perform to the best of their ability when millions of people are watching and millions of dollars are riding on the swing of a club.

The same rush of adrenalin that can derail a golfer can also make speaking in public a disaster. Performance anxiety or as it’s known in the sporting world, choking, occurs when the fight or flight response kicks in. In time of confrontation, the body prepares itself for battles by changing its physiology. The conscious brain senses danger and the autonomic nervous system the unconscious part of the brain takes over. When stimulated, hypothalamus sends messages to the adrenal gland to produce increased amounts of adrenalin, nor adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones increase the metabolism in the body, raising the heart rate and increasing the breathing rate to deliver more oxygen to the muscles and brain, expecting that work will need to be done. The level of glucose increases in the blood so that more energy is available for the impending fight. The pituitary gland is stimulated to produce endorphins to allow the body to tolerate the pain of that increased work. Other effects among many others include dilating the pupils, presumably to increase vision and causing hair to stand on end perhaps to make one look more ferocious.

The downside to that adrenalin response lay in the anxiety that it produces. The distractions can be felt in many parts of the body, the dry mouth because of lack of saliva, the palpitations of a rapidly beating heart, the shortness of breath caused by an increased respiratory rate and the shaky hand due to quivering muscles stimulated by all that extra adrenaline coursing through the bloodstream. These are real symptoms that should be expected in the heat of battle but some people develop them in stressful social situations like public speaking or meeting potential in-laws for the first time. Panic disorder or panic attacks describe the anxiety disorder where people have an intense fear that something bad will happen and develop symptoms no different than a pro golfer standing over a putt.

Studies show that the elite athlete tends to perform better under pressure because of increased self-confidence. Professionals tend to do better than amateurs presumably because they have been placed in similar situations in the past and understand and can control the arousal that an adrenalin surge can bring. Instead of fearing the adverse effects of the adrenalin, the elite athlete enjoys the sensation and perceives the sensation as excitement rather than anxiety.

Many pro athletes use sports psychologists to help overcome the potential for choking. Visualization techniques and calming techniques allow the athlete to center their thoughts and concentration to the point that they can block out distractions and focus only on the task at hand. These are the only tools that athletes are allowed to use but medications may benefit those who need to stand up in front of an audience. Beta blockers are medications that blunt the effects of adrenalin on the body, slowing the heart, calming the shakes and allowing the performance to occur. As expected, there are side effects to the heart and lungs. These potentially dangerous contraindications are why prescription drugs should be used with the supervision of a physician or other care provider.

It isn’t always the best athlete who wins but the one who can best perform under difficult conditions. Many do well in practice and it is true that practice and repetition help increase skill and self-confidence. But stars are made, be it on the course, in the lecture theater or in the operating room, when the score counts and performance happens under pressure.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.