Autonomic nervous system regulation mechanisms in athletes' anxiety control process

Autonomic nervous system regulation mechanisms in athletes' anxiety control process


Postgraduate F.F. Kostov
Dr.Med., Professor P.V. Rodichkin
Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia, St. Petersburg

Keywords: anxiety, autonomic nervous system, reactive asthenia, stress.

Introduction. Ever-increasing physical loads combined with peak psychological stress during competitions can lead to a decrease in the compensatory abilities of an athlete, which in turn leads to psychosomatic changes. The main psycho-traumatic factor for an athlete is anxiety and a state of anxiety resulting from it.

Anxiety is a complex of feelings and experiences, affective state of internal tension, uneasiness. Whereas fear is a response to a real threat, anxiety is an experience of diffuse threat which has nothing in common with a real object [5].

The term “anxiety” includes the process of adaptation of the human psyche to a hazard factor. In such a case, hazard chance can only be subjectified, appear from the tropes of equivocal outcomes of an individual-centered situation.

It is worth noting that some degree of anxiety has a beneficial effect on working efficiency, and it is called adaptive. At the same time, in terms of the adaptation level, not only increasing, but also decreasing anxiety has a negative and destructive effect on subject’s activity, causing different impairments in most psycho-physiological abilities. Besides a persistently high level of anxiety and physiological changes, accompanying this state, fraught with a variety of psychosomatic and neurotic disorders [4].

Individual propensity for anxiety as a psychological personality trait is called anxiousness [5]. According to the present-day ideas, anxiousness is not simply an emotional phenomenon, it also includes cognitive and motivational components that determine passive-defensive or escape behavior: affirmations, expectations, understanding of the world, etc. [4].

The specificity of sport activity is due to a set of features associated with psychological stress in stressful situations, and the states and reactions they cause, such as: pre-start fever or apathy, fear of competition and experience of defeat. As a result of psychological disorders in athletes, competitions turn into another stress factor, leading to a decrease in motor activity, and as a consequence, athletic performance decrement [1, 2].

The signs of anxiety can be clearly seen in the somatic sphere: heavy breathing, asphyxia, increased heart rate, dizziness. These symptoms reflect the severity of psychoemotional condition. Stress makes the adrenal glands to release adrenaline, causes peripheral vasodilation, an increase in heart rate (HR) and rise in blood pressure (BP). If affective evaluation is adequate, such changes make positive impact on athlete’s readiness to compete and are referred to as a mobilization response. As a result, the athlete finds himself/herself in a psychological pre-start state of combat readiness, the competing mood enhances, motivation increases and the chances of successful performance multiply.

However, an excessive increase of the anxiety level or excessive expressions of concern unduly before the competitions (which is a consequence of general anxiousness as a personality trait), effect an inhibitory action on the nervous system and psyche of an athlete, his/her motivation. There emerges a negative state of pre-start apathy in the short term, and develops asthenia afterwards.

The peak levels of manifestation of anxiety in athletes are observed not only immediately before the performance, but also after it, when they start evaluating own achievements. What is more, in most sports competitions are held for several days at a time, which may result in the overlaying of stresses.

It is the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that regulates the “action-rest” polarity of the body (ANS), its two divisions in particular: parasympathetic (PNS) and sympathetic (SNS). The mechanism of regulation of the activity is similar to that of the antagonist muscles. Thus, the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for digestion, vegetation and anabolism in general. Therefore, when it is the PNS that dominates the body is relaxed, it recovers and accumulates strength. On the contrary, the sympathetic division is responsible for the body functions in stressful situations, for the “run-fight” reaction. The SNS activation leads to an increase in HR and a rise in BP, as well as concentration of adrenaline in the blood, i.e., trains the body to respond to danger.

Both divisions of the ANS average each other out, but the sympathetic division can suppress the activity of the parasympathetic one. At the same time, excitation that arises in the SNS is diffusive not only due to a large number of nerve endings in this ANS division, but also due to adrenaline release. Owing to the fact that this hormone, when produced by the adrenal glands, spreads throughout the body, the reaction is generalized. Because of this, anxiety is experienced as an emotion that affects the whole body. Therefore, the entire body is subject to impact.

Research objective was to study the ANS response to the state of anxiety in real-life situations and during mental reconstruction of the event.

Research methods and structure. Subject to our study were 24 third-year students of the Faculty of Physical Education of Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia, aged from 20 to 21 years. The inclusion criterion was the sport category from the 1st senior degree to CMS. The exclusion criterion was an unacceptable “lie” scale score under the Taylor questionnaire in the version adapted by V.G. Norakidze.

The health, anxiety and performance efficiency tests were made using the following methods: the four-factor questionnaire “Well-being-Activity-Mood” (WAM) in the version adapted by A. Leonova; the Taylor Manifest Anxiety Scale (TMAS) test adapted by V.G. Norakidze as “Anxiety Scale” (AS); the Spielberger-Hanin State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) test; Kedro vegetation index.

The students were randomly split into 2 groups: reference and study. The values were assessed in two stages:

At the first stage, the testees were offered to take the questionnaires WAM, AS, STAI and Kerdo index at relative rest. At the second stage, the female students of the reference group were subject to stress when they were offered to take an unplanned test to assess their level of knowledge in the subject area. The female students of the study group were to do another task – to close their eyes and visualize in vivid details the process of training for competitions. Alarm clock signal, packing outfit, the music they were listening before the contest, the moment they came to the competition place and the way they warmed up, everything up to the beginning of the contest. Both groups were allotted 5 minutes to prepare for the test and create a mental picture, after which the Kerdo index was measured once again.

The test data acquisition and processing were performed using the “MultiPsychometer” computer complex at the faculty laboratory. The obtained data were analyzed using mathematical methods of statistics as provided by the standard Microsoft Excel software package. The mean data difference was rated using the Student’s t-criterion.

Results and discussion. The students were grouped in a random way, which is confirmed by the psychological test results.

Table 1. 4-factor WAM test






Reference group





Study group






tEmp = 0.5

tEmp = 0.4

tEmp = 1

tEmp = 0.4

Where WB – well-being, PА – physical activity, MА – mental activity, М – motivation. Student’s t-criterion was calculated at p≤0.01.

Table 2. Anxiety scores in Taylor and Spielberger tests. Kedro vegetation index.





Reference group




Study group





tEmp = 1

tEmp = 0.9

tEmp = 1.5

Where Taylor – anxiety index under J. Taylor test, Spielberger - anxiety index under Spielberger test. Kedro vegetation index at rest. Student’s t-criterion was calculated at p≤0.01.

As seen from Table 1, there are no statistical differences between the indices in both groups measured at rest. Thus, the WB (well-being) values in the reference group equaled 6.4±2.4 against 5.8±1.6 in the study group. The similar applies to other scales of the WAM test adapted by A. Leontieva: PA 6.4±0.9 and 6.2±0.8, MA 7.2±2.4 and 6±1.4, and M 6.4±1.9 and 6±0.7.

The same situation is observed when measuring the anxiety level under the J. Taylor test 7.3±2.6 in the reference group and 5.9±2.7 in the study one, and under the Spielberger test 5.6 ± 3.1 and 4.4 ± 1.4 (Table 2). There are no statistically significant differences in the data obtained under the Kedro vegetation index either: 1.53±8.8 and 7.35±5.2 in the groups, respectively.

The above-described suggests that this distribution is not only random but also homogeneous, which is important for the experimental integrity. Once the data obtained at the first stage were processed, and the psychological profiles of the reference and study groups were proved to be similar, the second stage of the study started. Having exerted the planned influence, we measured the Kedro index values once again. The results are presented in Table 3.

Table 3. The dynamics of Kedro vegetation index


Kedro at rest

Kedro stress


Reference group



tEmp = 5.1

Study group



tEmp = 4.5


tEmp = 1.7

tEmp = 2.1



The Kerdo index value in the reference group increased from -1.53​​±8.8 to 23.25±12.7, which is a statistically significant difference at p≤0.01. The similar applies to the study group: 7.35±5.2 and 15±4.3 at p≤0.01, which is also a statically significant difference. The representatives of both groups demonstrated an increase in the quantitative indices, which indicates the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, although it was only the reference group that was subject to the direct impact of stresses. The comparison of the groups indices after the second stage of the experiment did not reveal any statistically significant differences 23.25±12.7 and 15±4.3, tEmp = 4.5 was in the ambiguity area. This testifies to the fact that the indices do differ, but this difference is statistically insignificant, consequently, it can be stated that our research hypothesis is confirmed.

Conclusion. The changes in the activity of the autonomic nervous system when replaying and rethinking the past competitions are similar to those occurring before the real trials. As a result, there is under-recovery and distress, and as a side effect, a decrease in the psycho-emotional stability. This leads to the accumulation of fatigue, which in turn causes a crisis of adaptive capabilities and the development of reactive asthenia in athletes. To avoid this, it is required to raise the level of psycho-emotional stability of athletes, teach them the relaxation and self-control techniques.


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A competitive process requires from an athlete to be physically, technically and tactically fit and his/ her mental and emotional resource to be fully employed. High fitness in every aspect is important for the athlete’s readiness to fight and cope with potential negative pre-start conditions. However, it is not unusual that athletes have to face high mental anxiety not only in real pre-start situations but in post-competitive rehabilitation periods as well when the competitive accomplishments are rethought and analyzed. Such emotional experiences may manifest themselves even on physiological levels and cause a negative effect on the rehabilitation process; and they are obviously detrimental for an individual success in long-lasting competitions. It is the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the autonomous nervous system that regulate the opposing activation/ relaxation processes. In stressful situations, however, the sympathetic department may suppress activities of the parasympathetic one. As demonstrated by this study, the respondents who replay and rethink in their mind the pre-start training and competition processes are tested with the same variations in the nervous system functions as the subjects exposed to real stresses. Therefore, there are good reasons to believe that such rethinking of the past competitions may be detrimental for the anabolic processes in the body and even result in a reactive asthenia. Due initiatives need to be taken to improve the mental/ emotional balancing ability of an athlete and help him/ her develop good relaxation and self-control skills.