Strategies To Cope With Worry Thoughts:  What We Can Learn From An Olympian

IMG_2113by Jodi R. Galin, Ph.D.

Aly Raisman is on my mind.  Given that the 2016 Olympics are about to start as I was trying to write this blog, I was able to find this interesting article about her,, the captain of the 2016 USA women’s Olympic squad and a winner of two gold and one bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics.  The stories that she has shared about herself through media interviews can help all of us remember how to handle our own anxieties.  I was particularly intrigued by the following Aly quotes highlighted in the Bustle article:

“I should be more proud of myself, but I am such a perfectionist.”

“Sometimes if you are too focused on yourself, it makes you overthink everything.”

“You can’t always be the best.  You have to remember that everyone makes mistakes sometimes.”

“You can’t truly be successful at something if you don’t truly love it or if you don’t have a passion for it.  So just stay positive and have fun.”

I don’t know Aly Raisman personally, but I do understand perfectionism, worry thoughts, and anxiety.  My guess is that Aly is well-aware of her strivings for perfectionism and worry thoughts.  I bet that she understands how to talk to herself when the worry thoughts get loud in her head.  If someone as accomplished as Aly has worry thoughts and can confront her own anxieties, the rest of us can learn to do it too!  Here are some strategies to try when your worry thoughts take up too much space in your head:

  1. Breathe!  The more relaxed you are, the stronger and more capable you will be to handle whatever stressors come your way.
  2. Talk!  Talk to yourself when you are having self-defeating thoughts.  Tell yourself that you are strong, smart, capable, can accomplish what you want…  Use whatever the words are that have meaning to you to remind yourself that you can do a terrific cartwheel or excel on a math exam or resolve a conflict with a friend.
  3. Participate!  Know that you need to participate in events especially when your worry thoughts are loud in your head, NOT avoid behaviors because they make you anxious.  Keep reminding yourself that you are capable despite not feeling that way.  For example, consider the teenage boy with social anxiety whose worry increases every time he thinks about attending a friend’s birthday party.  He likely could accomplish his goal of going to the party (and may even have fun), if he could talk to himself in a positive manner.  He may say to himself, “I know my stomach is doing somersaults, but I can attend this party.”  If he could keep telling himself this message, he likely will be able to go the party, stay for the fun, and not throw up from the worry.  This is a much more enjoyable choice than staying home and not seeing his friends.  Positive self-talk can help him change his behavior and tolerate his anxiety.      
  4. Note:  positive self-talk will not make the worry go away in the moment.  Use the positive self-talk while you are worried/anxious.  The self-talk will help you try the behavior that you want to accomplish.  The more you do this, the smaller the worry will become.  
  5. Enlist a trusted friend or family member to help you use your positive self-talk to get through difficult moments.
  6. There is no such thing as perfect.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Life is not only about achievement.  If you are only striving for perfection, you may be missing many other life opportunities including fun and joy.
  7. Remember not to avoid life.  The more you participate, the bigger your life gets, the more fun you have!
  8. Seek professional help from a mental health professional if the anxiety is too big for you to live the life you want to live.