- By Ian Bradley
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Like most Canadians, I was glued to the screen last night following Canada’s Olympic team on its march to gold against the team from Slovakia. Our national level of comfort was jolted by the Slovaks second goal to close the margin in the third period to a nail-biting 3-2 with minutes to play. Watching our team lose their composure, as they frantically tried to prevent that tying goal was described by one hockey commentator as panic. As everyone knows, we ended-up with the victory, but we also panicked.
As a psychologist who has treated hundreds to patients with panic attacks I wondered about what advice I might give Team Canada following their collective panic.
As good clinicians are aware, I would not suggest the seemingly easy answer of forget about it, there’s another game to play.
Panic is an unpleasant experience. By definition, panic is a self-propagating process where specific thinking leads to greater arousal and greater fear. Panic patients narrow their attention to focus on the catastrophic. Their decision-making shifts to reducing harm and consciousness moves to a point of external observation rather than being integrated in the flow of current reality. The problem with the ” forgetting about it” advice is that panic patients don’t; they silently worry about it and live in terror that it will happen again.
Good clinicians help panic patients make contact with what they fear. They help them face the physiological cues of arousal, the type of thinking they experience when panicked as well as their innate escape-oriented behavioural tendencies. Psychologists do this with psycho-education about the fear response and the commonly associated thought patterns. With reassurance and support, they also re-expose patients to cues of their panic allowing from to more dispassionately observe what they previously lived in fear. Forgetting about the experience makes it worse, re-experiencing it under therapeutic conditions makes it better.
Perhaps a hockey coach needs to follow the same advice. The danger is that left unprocessed the memories grow in intensity ready to be unleashed in similar clutch situations.
What to do? Videotape review by the now composed players could be used therapeutically to rekindle last night’s memories. Now composed and victorious, re-living the feelings, the decision-making and the desperate actions stimulated by panic can be done individually or as a group.
Beyond mere re-exposure, the coaches might borrow another clinical technique by having the players re-live in imagination what they would have done differently. Instead of desperate defensive lunges, the players could see themselves taking charge and head-manning the puck up the ice thus morphing the fear into something adaptive.
Last night’s victory was tinged with trauma – the trauma not of losing but of panicking-the re-living of the experience is the only way to ensure effective desensitization.
The metric of success would be the same for both patient and player. I know that I’ve done my job when panic patients can laugh about their last panic attack.
Go Canada Go!
Dr. Bradley also sees professional athletes in his Montreal coaching practice.