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Understanding Stress

Athletic Anxiety


Stress is a word so commonly used, but rarely identifies a specific cause and effective cure.  Stress is similar to love.  Everyone has their own definition.

By questionnaire, doctors contribute stress as the underlying cause to 75% of most health care complaints.  Stress is a symptom manifestation, rather than the etiology of the discoordinance in psychological balance.

Similarly, most treatments for stress deal with the neurological response, rather than the root of the problem.  Common treatments are relaxation, controlled breathing, meditation, exercise, biofeedback, counseling and medications—both alternative (natural) and prescription.

Hans Seley won a Nobel Prize for his work on the neurological-hormonal pathways of stress induced physiological changes in humans.  Hans Seley, a pioneer in the study and disease, describes stages of adaptation to a stressful event:

  • Alarm
  • Resistance
  • Exhaustion or recovery


In the alarm stage, the body senses stress and the central nervous system is aroused.  The body releases chemicals to mobilize the fight-or-flight response—adrenalcorticotropic hormone (ACTH).  This hormonal release is the adrenaline rush associated with panic or aggression.

In the resistance stage, the body either adapts and achieves homeostasis, or it fails to adapt and enters the exhaustion stage, resulting in disease.

The stress response is controlled by actions taking place in the nervous and endocrine systems.  These actions try to redirect energy to the organ—such as the heart, lungs, or brain—that is most affected by the stress.

Physiologic stressors may elicit a harmful response leading to an identifiable illness or set of symptoms.  Psychological stressors, such as the death of a loved one, may also cause a maladaptive response.  Stressful events can exacerbate some chronic diseases, such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis.  Effective coping strategies can prevent or reduce harmful effects of stress.

There are differences in gender to how men and women manage stress.  These differences are directly related in how men and women’s brains operate.

Roger Sperry won a Nobel Prize in 1981 for his work on the specialization of the right and left-brain.  Since his publication, many studies and books have written on the differences of men and women’s processing.  These include books such as “Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars.”  These books highlight that men as a whole are right brain dominant: whereas, the women are left-brain dominant.  What does this mean?

First of all this does not mean that right brain dominance correlates with limb or arm dominance.  Brain functioning dominance focuses on the specialized brain functions that are located in these different hemispheres. 

Women are primarily left dominant.  The left- brain hemisphere controls the following:


   Deductive and Inductive Reasoning

   Process information piece by piece—similar to a computer processing


Men are primarily right dominant.  The right-brain hemisphere controls the following:

  • Spatial sense
  • Holistic thinking
  • Process information simultaneously


The connection or bridge to each hemisphere is through nerve fibers called the corpus callosum.  Women have 20% more corpus callosum than men.  These do not finish growing until the age of 21.  The other bridges are the neurologic fibers called the Anterior and Hippocampal Commissures.



  • Speak earlier as children
  • Know more words
  • Recall words better
  • Pause less
  • Glide through tongue twisters



  • Testosterone slows left brain development
  • “Y” gene develops higher levels of Dopamine
  • Increased Dopamine leads to greater addiction and novelty seeking activities
  • Later in life decline in Dopamine leads to Parkinson’s Disease


The union of two sex chromosomes--the X from the mother and the Y from the father defines men.  The woman defined by the X from the mother and an X from the father.

The Y chromosome contains only 25 genes, whereas, the X chromosome may contain from 1000-1500 genes.

Women have two X chromosomes, usually one is active and the other is inactive.  In 19% of the female population both X chromosomes are active and this has a more “protective mechanism”.

Women have deeper limbic systems.  The limbic system is that brain center that processes emotions.  Studies find that women get depressed at lower levels of stress than men.  Additionally, women produce a larger quantity of stress hormones, but unfortunately have a lower ability to shut these hormones off than men do.

Women internally amplify negative life experiences and push them into the subconscious whereas men usually react to negative life experiences.  OJ Simpson reacted.  The wife dealing with raising children, taking care of expenses deals with infidelity by internalizing the stress into the subconscious.  However, internally suppressing and ruminating over negative thoughts and feeing precipitates a cycle of hopelessness and despair.

After labor and delivery of a newborn, the woman has a tremendous fluctuation of hormones and usually experiences post partum depression.  This depression varies in its duration.  The next phase of vulnerability for women is in the period of child rearing, where she senses a feeling of abandonment from her spouse.

Stress has been categorized into four major categories:

  • Frustration
  • Conflict
  • Change
  • Pressure

Stress and tension produce a hormonal release of ACTH, which destroys Hippocampal neurons.  These hippocampal neurons are involved in learning and long-term memory formation.  An injury to this hippocampal area doesn’t allow one to create new memories.

Stress interferes with learning.  Anxiety triggers a flood of information through neurological impulses.  The ability to concentrate diminishes as anxiety levels rise and retention of new information is muddled.  Learning memory is enhanced when you are relaxed.

In order to optimize our learning we can minimize stress through:

  • Having a positive outlook and attitude
  • Eliminate negative emotion, fear, anxiety and frustration
  • Focus on learning components rather than the entire content

We retain information that is emotionally charged.  One sees an athlete celebrate excessively on a good play or shot, and try to eliminate emotions with poor performance.  That part of your brain that is responsible for emotions is also responsible for converting short-term to long-term memory.  For that reason, we remember events from our experiences that had the greatest emotional content.

A focus on negativity will erode confidence.

To improve our brain and physical performance we must overcome stress and tension.  Prior to a learning session or intensive reading we must consciously attend to relaxing the body and mind. The three most common ways are the following:

  • Deep breathing—then chanting 3-5minutes of “Ah-oh-mm”
  • Preparing the eyes—eye movements in short and long horizontal scanning
  • Use of internal imagery to “experience” a mental and auditory image of content

The sequence, in which we learn to process information, follows first in thought, then imagery and then feel.  This leads to learned memory, or as in the case of physical movement--muscle memory.  Take this test.  Sign your name quickly.  Now try to reproduce it using curved and straight lines.  Note the difference of learned memory vs. task performance.

Learned muscle memory leads to athletic success.  A golfer may experience poor putting through a phenomenon known as the “yips”.  Putting less than six feet increases tension and anxiety.  Researchers have studied this phenomenon with measuring brain wave activity by EEG.  They found that initially the left-brain quiets down then the right brain takes over.  The left-brain is verbal, tasks by components that create confusion and subsequent adjustments that lead to missed puts.

Rifle marksmen of Olympic level were studied to note how the brain waves affect performance.  It was found that initially the right brain analyzed the target, and then switched to the left-brain to pull the trigger and not make any more corrections.  This sequence was made smoothly and without prolonging the time interval.

Frequently athletes are so well trained that their brain will “slow” down the speed of the game and they feel as is they can anticipate the opponent’s movements.  Michael Jordan recalls that in his playing days he had the sensation of slowing down the game and thus was able to beat his defender to the free lanes where he would be able to get off a higher percentage shot. 

This ability to focus is commonly referred to as being in the “zone”.  The zone is a combination of extensive muscle memory, game experience and confidence, all which can be heightened when one diminishes anxiety, fear, and frustration.

Stress in athlete comes in many forms.  A major league pitcher with 10 years with one team was very successful, but when traded to the Yankees, he could not adjust to the move and his performance became adversely affected such that he was traded within a few months.

Athletes use techniques to disrupt their opponent’s concentration and use of learned muscle memory.  A golfer who is prepared to strike a ball has switched from the left brain to right brain activity; however, someone yelling or talking near him triggers an automatic listening function re-activating his left brain activity, which short-circuits his perfected swing or putting mechanics.  Another strategy for baseball pitchers is to have the batter start to think anything but striking the bat against the thrown ball. 

A technique such as a prolonged wind-up gives the batter extra time to start thinking.  Additionally, throwing the ball towards the batter in a threatening way will make the batter loose his focus and start thinking which will disrupt his muscle memory.  The corrective measure the golfer or batter take are to “step out” of their stance and reset their mind set for an automatic fluid action.


Should you have any further questions regarding this article, please direct your questions or comments to "Ask the Doctor" section.


Copyright © 2004 - 2012Taras V. Kochno, M.D.  All Rights Reserved
Board Certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation







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