“Chess Is Best Played Calm.” Relaxing Stress and Anxiety to Win

By Dr. Alex Dimitriu

“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

These were the words of an ancient Roman stoic philosopher, Seneca. While he died in 65 AD, his words could not be more true now, two thousand years later.

Am I Stressed or Anxious?

Knowing the difference between stress and anxiety can help you better understand yourself, as well as to help you find ways to improve your life.

Everyone has experienced stress. Being rushed is stressful. Having a lot of work to do is stressful. Being asked to do multiple things at once is stressful. An easy way to conceptualize stress is any time there is a mismatch between your ability and the demands in front of you. Being told you will have to run a marathon tomorrow morning, could be stressful for most. Stress happens in real-time, now.

Anxiety can be based on real stressors, but it lives more in your head and not in the present moment. A key differentiating factor is the amount of departure from reality, into imagination. You see, stress is real, tangible, and here and now. Anxiety is a bit more of a story. It’s imagination. It can be exaggerated, obsessive, catastrophic, or even paranoid at times. Anxiety is able to induce worry and feelings of adrenaline, even when there is no real stressor happening in the moment.

Reality and Imagination

Imagination is a human superpower because it lets us think up things that are not real. It also lets us time travel, and go back and re-experience the past, as well as plan and predict for the future. These are tremendously powerful tools that make humans special, but they can be as much a blessing as a curse. Indeed those of us who have vivid imaginations can get carried away equally far in a positive as well as negative direction. Think of imagination, especially in the case of anxiety, as an “emotional amplifier.” Anxiety is an added layer on top of reality, on top of real time stress, that often comes with a story, expectations, or fears which are not real and not happening now.

When is it too Much?

There is a lot of debate around how much anxiety is ideal. The Yerkes Dodson Law, posits that no anxiety is not great, some anxiety is ideal, and too much anxiety hurts your performance. It’s an upside down “U” shaped curve. However this has been disputed, with the most recent findings suggesting that any anxiety is not good to one’s performance. This is where I often like to remind my patients that, “chess is best played calm.” Indeed, getting nervous, flustered, throwing pieces around the chessboard can be quite distracting from the actual game. Your life is the same way. We might agree that some anxiety is good for motivation, but too much, and you get sloppy. This is a powerful lesson to many people who often think they need to be anxious to perform well. It helps to start relating differently to your anxiety – especially from the perspective that it does not make you who you are, or better.

It Helps to Know You’re Dreaming – Putting the Breaks on Imagination

The San tribe of South Africa is known to sleep with their ears to the ground – so they can tell if a threat is real or in their dreams. We can learn a lot from that practice. Firstly it helps to recognize that your mind may be dreaming or imagining too much. A clear sign of this is if the stories or “day dreams” you entertain take up a significant portion of your day, or are intense enough to get your heart racing. With this awareness, it also helps to remember you will act more wisely from a place of peace rather than agitation – and that chess is best played calmly.

Another way to look at it comes from the famous couples therapist John Gottman. While his work focuses on couples therapy, the relationship with yourself is perhaps the most fundamental relationship of all. If we treat it as such, here’s some priceless pearls from Gottman’s work with couples:

Most importantly, he writes about flooding, “if your heart rate exceeds 100 beats per minute, you won’t be able to hear what your spouse is trying to tell you no matter how hard you try. It is physically impossible to communicate.” Indeed chess is best played calm, even with yourself.

Adrenaline, elevated heart rate, and a sense of urgency or agitation can all be evidence that your reptilian brain has taken charge. Watch it, know when it’s happening, and then, disconnect and take a break to cool off. The real aim is to unplug from the problem long enough to cool off and get a new perspective. According to Gottman’s couple’s work:

  • Breathe and practice mindfulness in the moment
  • Imagine yourself in your favorite place, a safe place, and get lost there.
  • Meditate into that thought and place
  • Truly try to relax. Exercise or music are good.
  • No ruminating, replaying the issue, or planning how to respond or get even. You really gotta let it go for this break to count!

In couples work you are allowed to return to the issue once calm – or about 20 minutes. In my work with patients with anxiety – I recommend taking an even longer break as the time constraints of couples therapy are not present. Sleep on it.. but the key is you really need to not dwell and obsess in the meantime. Must unplug.

Need more proof that chilling out will let you play your best hand? In his TED talk, “The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers,” psychologist Adam Grant shows how being completely distracted from the actual problem brought people to some of the most creative solutions.

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