Driving Advantage 06 - Arousal, Anxiety, and Stress

Arousal, Anxiety, and Stress

Arousal is the state of a person's physiological activation as measured by heart rate, and other physiological markers. What does arousal feel like? If you remember back to your first race, just before your wedding, or before making a speech to a large group, you can remember what arousal feels like. In these cases probably too much arousal.

Performance improves with arousal up to a point and then diminishes. This theory leads us to some very interesting conclusions. First there is an optimal level of arousal, but it is a different level for each person. Also, different activities require different levels arousal for optimum results. A football linebacker requires considerably more arousal then a golfer about to make a put. Arousal can be pleasant or unpleasant depending on your personality and the level of arousal. At higher levels, arousal becomes connected with anxiety and stress.
The reason arousal improves performance is bound up with our physiological makeup. The body secretes various chemicals that cause the body to prepare for a particular type of activity. Unfortunately, the body does not always get it right. The sports term "he choked" refers to an excessively high arousal level. The term "over-trained" generally means too low a level of arousal. One of the effects of increasing arousal is perceptual narrowing. Perceptual narrowing means that an increasing amount of sensory input is screened out because it is not relevant to the performance of the task. This process works well up to a point but after, it causes degradation in performance because useful sensory information is screened out. The terms "tunnel vision" and "red mist" are used to express this situation.

The obvious goal here is to determine your optimal arousal level and to maintain that level of arousal before and during a race. Nature organized this rather well though the evolutionary process. When you need the extra boost, all those chemicals are released and you are ready for fight or flight. The thing that makes race driving so hard is that it is in direct conflict with our nature. Race driving is like trying to thread a needle while running from a saber tooth tiger. That is, racing requires fine motor control to be proficient, in an environment that by its very nature causes massive arousal. Anyone, who has ever gone though a really fast corner for the first time understands arousal. An argument goes on in your brain, one side saying "you can do it, the guy ahead did" and the other side screaming "you're going to die you fool". Obviously this is a serious conflict. Control of arousal is a major factor in success as a race driver.

When the individual becomes concerned about his ability to cope with a situation and there is risk in his failure, stress is produced in that individual. The discussion in your head before a high-speed corner is an excellent example. Whenever there is a mismatch between your perception of the demands of the situation on you and your perception of your ability to cope, you will have stress. The word perceived crops up frequently in this definition indicating that it is not your actual situation or ability but how your view the situation of ability; the uncertainty it creates in you. When we relate stress back to arousal, we find stress increases arousal, often far into the region of degraded performance.

Now that we have an understanding of stress we need to apply this understanding to racing. Obviously the primary task is control over arousal and stress level. In addition we will look into how we can create more stress in our opponents, consistent with good sportsmanship.

Often our attempt to control stress will come after a stressful event, when our purpose is to regain an optimum level of arousal. In racing, we rarely have time to practice stress reduction before the stressful event. We should be aware of some of the pitfalls that accompany high stress levels. There is a tendency towards risky behavior; often this is an attempt to make up for a mistake. Excessive stress can cause the following consequences; rushing things, making decisions too quickly, and not reviewing all the relevant inputs. We must be aware that cognitive analytical skills are degraded the most and, essentially analysis won't work. Also, negative meta-cognitive processes are involved, such as self-doubt, fear, embarrassment, etc.

An important coping skill is task shedding. You must develop the ability to use cognitive and perceptual narrowing to your advantage by shedding the less important tasks for the more important. An often repeated racing cliché is "slow down to go fast". You need to slow your responses down to make the correct response. Another element is not to worry about how you got into the situation. Any attention diverted to that, is not only wasted but will bring up negative meta-cognitive thoughts, which can further degrade performance.
In track practice, I believe it is a good idea to separate learning from extreme stress situations. In learning, don't be constantly scaring yourself to death. Creep up on the limit, and develop a comfort factor.

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© 2007 Doug Snyder of Force 5 Racing Team
Permission granted; "Driving Advantage"

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