Deified American skier Bode Miller took a disastrously wide turn in his downhill event Sunday, putting him out of medal contention at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi. The seemingly unflappable Shaun White failed even to reach the podium in his half pipe snowboarding event. And women’s half pipe had more than one upset. So what's happening?
Both the athletes themselves and the commentators doing the commentating have pointed to the poor track conditions as the culprit. But would anyone fault them if they were just nervous? (Everyone uses the same track, after all.) The power of the unconscious mind lies in its ability to sense danger ahead of time, marshaling our sympathetic nervous system to prepare our bodies for oncoming danger. Does this mean nervousness is an evolutionary flaw, or an asset? Why do we (Shaun White included) get nervous?
Nervousness, stress, anxiety — the feelings all seem to arise together in some fashion. And it’s no accident. Thousands of years ago, when food was consumed after having just killed it, a fight or flight response was boilerplate to humans’ survival. Over time, we phased ourselves out of the food web, but the hardwired response stayed. Now, when we have a big first date or a speech to give, our brains foolishly think our lives are in real danger.
Luckily, there are ways around the physiologic response of our adrenal glands releasing adrenaline and diverting our stomach’s blood vessels away from their normal function (they constrict; that’s why we feel nervous) to ready the heart and muscles. Our outward expressions are the result of our emotions, sure; but psychologists also know that the opposite is true. Surprisingly, we can change how we feel by changing how we look.
Have an important interview? Stand like Wonder Woman for two minutes, Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy says. Nervous before a presentation? Don’t try to calm down. Get pumped — as matching your arousal state with a verbal “I’m excited” has been shown to relieve feelings of anxiety. The beautiful part? Even if you don’t believe it, it still works.