Just do nothing.
Recently I have concentrated all my blogs towards experiences on my past, sharing small life lesson’s I was fortunate enough to learn along the way. With this piece I wish to deliver something a little more specific. Recently in my life the conversation of anxiety and subsequently its effects have become very relevant to me and certain people around me. I since young have often suffered from mild anxiety, over the years it has fluctuated depending on circumstance or life context, much like many people. As a footballer I struggle to believe there are footballers out there that haven’t struggled with this one way or another at some point in their career, especially with the constant stimuli and expectation of the modern society. I suppose I could generalise this thought towards the greater population but for the sake of simplicity I will stick to footballers.
In my experience as a player, I feel my biggest inhibition has been nerves and anxiety. I have single-handedly stopped myself from making certain steps in my career due to nerves. When you are extremely nervous or anxious, your body is in a state of survival due to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system or more commonly known as our “fight or flight” system. I found myself in situations where my nerves caused me to do things on the field that made no sense, I would feel extremely fatigued after so little as one sprint and on top of that my mind would feel like it is spinning, the stimuli around me would all turn to fuzzy images. I could confidently say in most of these situations I performed at about 20% relative to a normal training day. Now of course a certain quantity of nerves or anxiety is necessary arousal for competing but to the extent I experience it is detrimental to performance. I would go home after these games or training sessions and get so angry with myself; it was a viscous cycle of expectation and in-ability to reach that expectation. I had learned to accept this was just who I was, I strongly believed I could manage it without any help. After a couple years of struggling, a few unfortunate circumstances in my personal life caused this mild anxiety to become rather severe. The last couple years now I have really struggled with nausea, stomach ulcers and weight loss. My anxiety bled into everything; I couldn’t do so much as finish a meal without a crippling nausea that would leave me scared to eat for days at a time. Of course, it came to the stage where if I wanted to continue a healthy life never mind football, something had to be done. I worked with various psychologists, some helped hugely some not so much, at the end of the day, it was up to me to decide if things were to change.
To beat it I had to understand it, anxiety from thoughts is a result of our evolved human brain. We can create narratives in our mind about what may happen in the future and often we think of the negative. To put things into perspective, imagine you have an important game coming up, it is very common to think about all the possible negative outcomes such as playing bad or losing, but they are just thoughts, right? Well not entirely, yes, they are just thoughts that are natural, but our body unfortunately cannot make this segregation. Our mind will begin to anticipate this false reality we are creating and consequently our body will react as if it were real. By us simply thinking of these endless outcomes, we are causing our body to go into this state of survival as our amygdala has now perceived we are under threat and our sympathetic nervous system has been activated. From here our brain starts to see a pattern, when there is a football game, we are under threat. This mental process becomes a default route, just like when you drive to work and don’t need to think about the directions you already know, sub consciously your brain has done it so many times that no longer consciously thinks about it. So now how do you forget how to drive to work? Seems like a steep task, but maybe there is another way. I realised I don’t want to forget the route; I need to take a different one. In order to do that I have to consciously alter my subconscious memory. Now to do that with a route that is driven by neurons in my brain is a little more complex.
Meditation, for me has been the only way I can learn to rewrite these stubborn subconscious process. Now I understand there is a lot of stigmas around meditation, especially amongst footballers. I about a year ago would have been the first person to laugh in my face at thought of meditating, but here me out. I recently spent a lot of time studying the work of Dr. Joe Dispenza (neuroscientist) and Dr. Jeff Tarant (neurotherapist), who go into great deal about the mental procedures undertaken with effective meditation. Of course, I won’t go into detail there, as it is very complex, but I’ll give a summarised review on how I have implemented it on myself. In Jeff Tarant’s book “Meditation Interventions to rewire the brain” he breaks down different ways to meditate for different disorders or objectives. I am by no means an expert in the realm of meditation but strive to be one day. I adopted the focused and mindfulness techniques of meditation; I use the app insight timer as a guide. I practice being present, staying in tune with my sensory systems, I use this as a way of grounding myself. When I concentrate on the present, I can distinguish between what is reality and what are just passing thoughts. Once I have found myself well grounded, I commence my focus training, I imagine the words, “I am in control, I am calm” I repeat this to myself and whenever my mind drifts, I consciously come back to this mantra. This allows me to start teaching my brain that my default setting is no longer threat but relaxed, this process starts the rewiring necessary to alter these sub-conscious routes. Dr Joe Dispenza talks a lot about the placebo effect, where people have healed themselves from cancer or other illness purely from just believing they are getting better. Our brain is so powerful, learning to manipulate it rather allowing it to manipulate us allows endless possibilities. I see meditation as a metaphor, taking control of you and your life, by literally doing nothing. Just sitting down even for 1 minute takes you that little bit closer and can make such a huge difference.
I understand for many, it is something very far from realistic to engage in, or purely just not something you believe in. In this case I wouldn’t encourage meditation in this format. Meditation can be carried out in anything, from spending time with loved ones or playing video games. However, bottom line is, always prioritise doing what makes you happy, if you happy, you are succeeding.