I don’t know about anyone else, but last night, watching the inevitable penalties, I was so wound up I was stood in my living room in front of the television, jogging on the spot. There was a lot of adrenaline flying over the pitch and over the country, but I don’t feel we every really stop to think about what that is and why it takes control of us, or how impressive it is when players do manage to keep their cool.
Fight or flight is our bodies’ evolutionary response to danger. It acts as a warning system, telling us when something is approaching that may harm us. This response has always been with us, even when we were living in caves, and couldn’t really communicate other than painting on a few walls.
Imagine that you’re sat in your cave, and out of the corner of your eye you see a sabre-tooth tiger approaching. For your safety, your brain has to recognise that this is a problem, and it needs to respond to keep you alive. So your brain pumps adrenaline into your body, activating your fight or flight system. This system prepares us to fight that tiger, or run as fast as we can away from it.
That heart-racing feeling when Harry Kane steps up to the spot? That’s our body pumping more blood into our big muscles, the ones in our arms and legs, giving us as much strength as possible. The sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach when Columbia scored that goal? We don’t need to be digesting food in a dangerous situation, that blood and energy is better used elsewhere in our body. But when that pizza and beer is lying in the bottom of your stomach not being digested, it can feel very unpleasant.
Adrenaline can be useful to us, even in situations where it’s not life and death (though it may feel like it). That same pinpoint vision we get when we’re anxious, where the world closes in, allows us to focus on a predator heading in our direction. It also helps Jordan Pickford focus solely on the ball coming straight towards him. This is also why anxiety and anger are the flip sides of the same coin – we are trying to fight our way out (yelling at the television) or run from the situation (hiding behind the cushion).
The thing is, our brains can’t tell the difference between a real danger and something we just feel might harm our safety. So when we’re in that match, or just when we’re watching hundreds of miles away, we’re still reacting like that tiger is out to get us. And this is also what happens when we experience anxiety. Our brain tells our body to react like going into that shop is dangerous, or that something bad is going to happen if we try and drive, even if we know that’s unlikely.
So how can we control this, or keep our cool? In the moment, grounding techniques can help us gain control of a situation. An easy grounding technique to do is pay attention to your feet. You can focus you attention on what they feel like – are they hot or cold? What material are they against? Does it feel rough or smooth? What colour are your shoes, or what colour are your toenails painted? By diverting our attention elsewhere and focusing on the moment, the brain slowly becomes aware that there is no tiger. It stops producing so much adrenaline and helps us to stay calm. So when England players stay focused on the game, they play better, despite what is going on around them.
Focusing like this can be really helpful for short-term situations like football matches, or World Cups. But if you have a longer term problem with anxiety which won’t go away, you may require further support. People aged 16+ who are registered with a Telford and Wrekin GP can call us on 01952 457415 to arrange an assessment, and discuss with a mental health professional your symptoms. Alternatively, if you’d rather work through your anxiety at your own pace, you can sign-up to our free online therapy programme, Silvercloud, here.
Finally, don’t worry if the game last night left you feeling a little drained. Adrenaline takes a massive amount of energy from our body. It will recharge, ready to do it all again on Saturday.