How thinking about death can liberate you from most of the stressors that are affecting your performance.

Stress and anxiety are common things in our day-to-day life and nowadays many people are turning into endurance sports such as running and triathlon to find a way to cope with stress, which occurs when there is an imbalance between a certain demand (e.g. finishing a marathon) and the perceived response capacity (e.g. Am I ready or not to run a marathon?). Thus, the greater this imbalance the greater the stress.

Stress leads to greater arousal (i.e. physiological activation or bodily responses to stress) and depending on the level that it achieves, it can lead to an optimal state (yes, stress is not always bad) or to negative emotional states such as fear and anxiety (the popular view of stress). According to Perry (2015), many sports psychologists jump straight into arousal and anxiety without properly analyzing stress and its stressors (the factors that are causing stress). However, it is important to understand stress before moving on because both arousal and the negative emotional states arise from stress.

Here things become interesting. Because stress is an imbalance between demand and response, it can be seen as the incapacity to a future outcome, leading to an internal conflict due to the incapacity to decide what the best course of action is. Because of this, sports psychologists have mapped many stressors that affect athletes. Reilly and Williams (2003), for example, suggested in their book seven different categories of stressors: “physical demands, psychological demands, environmental demands, expectations and pressure, relationship issues, life direction concerns and uncategorized stress sources.” In each category Reilly and Williams also listed a variety of ways to cope with them such as rational thinking, pre-competition mental preparation, changing to healthy acting attitudes and behavior, and training hard and smart (for physical demands); and pre-competition mental preparation, management, positive focus and orientation, and training hard and smart (for psychological demands). The list goes on but you can also read Fullerton’s paper for a deeper discussion on the topic.

Once I started thinking about this mechanism of stress and types of stressors a question came to my mind: what would be the biggest stressor above all? Well, I could only think of one thing, Death. If we assume that surviving is the main life goal (biologically speaking) then Death would be the ultimate cause of most of (if not all)  the stressors such as the fear of going through financial problems, of losing a job, of getting hurt, and even of not performing well in a competition. But because life occurs through surviving (either via the organism’s existence by itself (i.e. one’s life) or via reproducing and spreading one’s genes), it seems logical that death plays a major role in the existence of life itself (the famous circle-of-life).

One thing that always called my attention is how the emphasis on staying at present moment ease the anxiety and stress caused by past moments or negative predictions of the future, leading to fear and pain. Thus, what would happen if we start to think of Death as a natural part of life and not as the negative and dark opposition to it? What if we could start seeing Death from another perspective, liberating ourselves from the pure fear and anxiety of dying? Could we start seeing death in a respectful way and embrace the basic, although uneasy, notion of coexisting with risks (and being aware of them) without allowing fear and anxiety (i.e. intense negative emotions) to take control of our minds?

Interestingly, this idea of contemplating Death is a common practice in Bhutan, the place with the happiest people in the world according to the GNH index – although this is an interesting point, please be critic about this index. In fact, Buddhist teachers such as Sogyal Rinpoche (author of “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”) suggest that regular contemplation of death can lead to a peaceful emotional state that culminates with the liberation of negative habits and fear reflexes and leads to a deep experience of joy. Moreover, the topic of Death is also being discussed by Western physicians such as BJ Miller (see his TED talk here) from the Zen Hospice Project and it is gaining more support over the years.

I know the idea of contemplating Death is something very scary for most of us, but by overcoming the fear related to this stressor might also liberate you from most of the other stressors, enhancing not just your performance under stressful situations, but also the quality of your life in general. Thus, if you want to try this idea, here are a few suggestions on how to do it:

  1. Start with regular breathing techniques: I chose this as the first step because breathing techniques will teach you the most important thing before any contemplation practice, that is, to keep your attention in the present moment. The ability to maintain oneself in the present moment seems to reduce (sometimes completely) the impact of stressors on our body and mind, allowing a person to recall or infer negative experiences without the feeling of (re)living them. This is basically what many biofeedback methods try to do by allowing you to achieve or train a certain psychophysiological state via sensorial feedback of your biological activity. A good way to start is by setting up 10 min in the morning and 10 minutes at night to focus on your breath and solidify your ability to stay present. Be aware that morning and night meditations will probably have a different impact on your mind. Morning meditations are good to liberate you from the influence of dreams (good or bad ones) that occurred during the night, making your mind clear and focused on achieving your daily goals; night meditation, however, will clear your thoughts and allow you to go to sleep easily.
  2.  Associate your thoughts with pleasant experiences: although our brain has evolved to work beyond the traditional behavioral conditioning, our mind still makes associations to predict behavioral actions more efficiently (i.e. spending less energy). Thus, try not to engage with experiences that picture death as a painful or frightening experience (e.g. avoid movies and news that try to capture your attention by inducing fear and horror). The goal here is not to anesthetize your feelings but to make you contemplate and accept death as a natural process.
  3.  Try to relax by reconnecting with nature: Grinde and Patil (2009), showed that “adding elements of Nature to living spaces can presumably induce positively valued changes in cognition and emotion, which again may impact on stress level, health, and well-being”. The application of such an idea to your daily contemplative session it is also a good way to start freeing your mind from the fear of dying and from other stressors. You can also make use of other peaceful sensorial stimuli such as a relaxing song and nature sounds.
  4.  It is about accepting, not about losing respect: all things will come to an “end”, so do not focus on what will happen when you are gone. Focus on accepting the circle-of-life. However, that does not mean that you will start to be irresponsible with your life and the life of others. Remember, is about respecting and accepting death.
  5.  Help yourself by talking to your loved ones: stress can be greater especially for those that consider to be responsible for the life or well-being of someone else. Parents know that feeling very well. It is true that one will have to be more concerned once he or she has accepted the responsibility of being a parent. But while the first year will be probably more stressful, it is important to discuss with your children about life and death. Parents that can raise infants to be more aware of the comings and goings in life will consequently be less stressed themselves once they will start to have the sense that their children will be ready to have a happy life without their parents. Moreover, this idea will also reduce parents suffering once their children start to leave home to have their own lives.

I hope I was able to help at least a little. And remember that before anything you are a human being with flaws and fears. Do not fight against it, this will only create conflict and will make you waste energy. Accept them, be aware of them, and once you do that you will be able to work your way around all your problems as an athlete and human being.