The other day, whilst walking from my car to the gym, I was attacked by a bird. I imagine that it thought I was trying to get to its nest or something (I wasn’t), and it swooped down continuously, aiming for my head, until I bid a swifty retreat.
Today, whilst at the track, a bird of the same variety (hopefully not the same one) landed next to me whilst I was stretching. I immediately became a bit anxious, expecting it to attack at any point. I had to move to the other end of the track to continue my warm up, and even then I kept a weary eye on the bird, just in case it attempted to sneak up on me.
Prior to the attack outside the gym, I barely gave birds a second thought. I certainly wasn’t scared of them, and I hardly noticed them. Since the attack, however, I am more anxious around them, even though the attack was a one-time event over my thirty year life.
One prior event has therefore impacted my behaviour, at least acutely. The event itself was pretty benign; I wasn’t hurt or anything. But my brain now reacts to the presence of birds in a different manner to the past. Instead of interpreting them as a winged creature that has no interest in me, now I (or my brain) interprets them as something which could do me harm. And this perception then drives physiological changes, such as the release of stress hormones, which manifest as feelings of anxiety. The legacy of my prior experience drives my current and future behaviours.
From an evolutionary perspective, this is sensible. The first time humans saw fire, they would have been curious. Getting burned by it would have illustrated to them that fire can be harmful, and the feelings of anxiety associated with being around fire would have resulted in a healthy respect of its effects, like burning down your shelter when left unattended.
My experience has a very minimal effect on my life, except for making me more likely to look a bit weird running away from birds at the track. But for people who have experienced serious trauma, such as an assault or a car crash, the effects can be much more serious, making them scared to enter situations similar to the initial incident.
How does this affect athletes? Well, how about if I pull my hamstring during maximum velocity sprinting? During my rehabilitation period, I’m going to become fearful of maximum velocity sprinting, which will affect my performance and more than likely my running technique. Over time, as I accumulate more maximal velocity sprinting without injury, my brain will learn that it is no longer a threat, and the stress response will disappear.
As a real life example of this, after I had back surgery, the only day my back really hurt was race day. This was partly due to the increased anxiety and stress regarding the competition causing a heightened alertness towards threatening symptoms. Had I not known this was going to happen pre-race, I could have become unnerved by the increased sensation of pain in my back, and not been able to compete.
Pulling all these strands together, humans are clearly very complex creatures, and we are all unique in both our experiences and how these experiences affect us. Whilst two people might get exposed to the same stressful experience, the extent to which their behaviour is modified, if at all, will vary. Similarly, two people might get exposed to the same stimulus, but interpret it very differently – in part due to their previous experiences – and therefore have vastly different stress responses. Being aware of this, as athletes, coaches, and people, is crucial; and being mindful of why you might behave the way you do could be due to events in your history, you can attempt to resolve your response to a perceived stressor.
Which is why the next time I’m going to the track, I’m taking a water pistol.
If you found this article somewhat interesting, you might find this one , where I take a look at Robert Sapolsky’s most recent book, and what it can teach us about why certain behaviours happen, similarly enthralling