Nerves or Anxiety?

In this excerpt from his new book, world-renowned performance consultant Raymond Prior uncovers the answer to an age-old question
Kittansett Club, Marion, MA

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt comes from Raymond Prior’s new book Golf Beneath the Surface: The New Science of Golf Psychology. Prior holds a Ph.D in sport and exercise psychology, and is one of the most sought-after consultants in the mental performance space, having worked with major champions in both men’s and women’s golf, as well as a host of elite performers across the MLB, NFL, English Premier League and more.

Golf Beneath the Surface was a recent pick in the BTS Book Club, and Prior joined us for a Discord discussion in February, which you can listen to above. The following excerpt covers the physiological difference between nerves and anxiety in the brain. It builds on his discussion of the “old brain” (which controls basic survival needs, emotion and memory) and the “young brain” (with responsibilities including metacognition, or the ability to consider our own thoughts).

Brain Summary

Let’s put all the pieces together. Your brain is an organ, and the hardware of the human supercomputer. The brain is responsible for a wide range of functions, but above all else, your brain is designed to ensure your survival. To meet this overriding function, it relies heavily on our old brain which is much faster and stronger than our young brain.

Our old brain is good for surviving, but it’s not as good for thriving because it can’t distinguish between real and perceived threats. In situations where we’re trying to thrive, our old brain easily misconstrues things like emotional discomfort, uncertainty, mistakes, and even its own nerves as real threats to us, despite the fact that the vast majority of the time, these things pose little or no physical threat to us, especially in golf.

If we want to compete at a high level and see just how good we can be, things like failure, emotional discomfort, uncertainty, mistakes, and getting nervous are unavoidable. The more we want to learn, grow, and pursue a higher level of performance in the modern world, the more frequently and intensely these events occur, and the less valuable it is to perceive them as threats and react to them habitually.

Thankfully, our young brain includes the prefrontal cortex, the area of our young brain that allows us to be aware of and think about our experiences in ways that influence how our brain learns and responds beyond just reacting to ensure survival.

Changing the Brain by Training the Mind

Our old brain and young brain are hardwired; we can’t change their hardware directly. However, by training our minds, our brain’s neural connections and pathways adapt to what we train our minds to do. This process is called neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to grow and reorganize how neural pathways in our brain and nervous system are arranged. Neuroplasticity allows our brain to change how small clusters of neurons are wired together as well as drastically remap how millions of neurons are structured.

Perhaps the most important reason for understanding neuroplasticity is that it highlights how valuable it is to address our psychology. As a part of our physical bodies, the brain physically adapts to how we use or don’t use our minds, and it’s doing so whether we are aware of it or not.

Our supercomputer brains change based on the software we provide to it through our psychology. When we don’t take the time to examine and upgrade our psychology, we are effectively leaving their old brain’s safety-first hardware to paint our experiences as it sees fit, usually with the same patterns of thought and behaviors over and over again. As such, many golfers continue to play through anxiety, fear of failure, and unstable confidence.

Nerves or Anxiety?

Let’s clarify a few things about nerves. An accurate understanding of where nerves come from also shows us that nerves are not a bad thing in and of themselves. In fact, most of the world’s best golfers learn to welcome nerves as a sign that they’re in situations they want to be in, like having a chance to win a tournament. After all, very rarely do we get nervous about opportunities that don’t mean anything to us. But nerves and anxiety are not the same.

Too often, we use the words “nervous” and “anxious” interchangeably. Using the two words to mean the same thing contributes to misunderstandings about both. As we’ve detailed, nerves are an instinctual physiological response triggered by our old brain’s most basic hardware. Nerves can feel uncomfortable, but in and of themselves, nerves cannot directly impede us. Nerves create cognitive, neurological, and physical alertness, which is highly beneficial for performance. Think of nerves as more of a sense of readiness for immediate action for the present moment accompanied by some elevated physiological symptoms.

Anxiety is a fear-based emotion. Specifically, anxiety is a psychological state characterized by extensive worry about the future, typically about an imminent event with uncertain outcomes. Since any event that is about to occur is imminent, and the only thing we can be certain about is that things are uncertain, anxiety can be a part of any experience, especially based on how we perceive it. This, of course, includes golf. Each shot we are about to hit is imminent and there is always some level of uncertainty about where the ball will go.

Nerves: A sense of readiness for immediate action coupled with elevated physiological symptoms
Anxiety: A fear-based emotion characterized by worry about an imminent event with uncertain outcomes

Let’s get specific with how nerves and anxiety are different by understanding how our brain is working during both. To plan for the future, the prefrontal cortex uses memories of past experiences as precedent, but to do so the prefrontal cortex requires accurate information. When everything is working out for us as we think that it must or should, accurate information is available because our prefrontal cortex is online and in the driver’s seat. This is critical to understanding the difference between nerves and anxiety; when our prefrontal cortex is online, we can make conscious, intentional, and rational decisions. When it’s offline, we can’t.

When accurate information isn’t available and there’s enough uncertainty involved, the prefrontal cortex will then do its best to plan for the future by trying to fill in the lack of information and avoid potential threats. Projecting different versions of what might happen using our core beliefs and perceptions of previous experiences in similar situations is our young brain’s best attempt to help us choose the best actions to take. However, when our prefrontal cortex’s best efforts to project the future still include high enough levels of constriction and threat that we are unwilling to accept, the result is anxiety.

Our old brain, being older, faster, and stronger, reacts instinctively with nerves so we can live long enough to actually plan for the future, but it’s our young brain that creates and fuels anxiety.

In other words: nerves from the old brain plus inability to project a future that has acceptable levels of uncertainty and threat by our young brain creates anxiety.

Tiger Woods, 2012 AT&T National, Congressional Country Club, Bethesda, Maryland

After a thorough discussion of the brain’s role in golf performance, Prior’s book introduces a step-by-step guide to using mindful awareness to rewire your golfing brain for improved performance. BTS members can save 15% on Golf Beneath the Surface by using the code BTS15 here.