In our daily lives, psychological stress is how our bodies react to tensions, pressures, and sudden changes. In engineering, we refer to stress as the internal distribution of a force exerted on a material body, resulting in strain or deformation; too much stress can fracture the object.
Likewise, psychological stress can make it harder for us to deal with challenges, to make proper decisions, even to function. This can happen at the poker table.
The brain plays a critical role in the body’s perception of stress and our response. During a stress response, the hypothalamus secretes various hormones that stimulate the body’s pituitary gland and initiates a heavily regulated stress response pathway.
The amygdala is believed to play a role in the processing of emotions, in modulating stress response mechanisms, particularly when feelings of anxiety or fear are involved.
During stress, the hippocampus is particularly important, in that cognitive processes such as prior memories can have a great influence on enhancing, suppressing, or even independently generating a stress response. The hippocampus is also an area in the brain that is susceptible to damage brought upon by chronic stress.
When you feel stressed, your muscles become tense, often leading to pain and fatigue, and limiting your physical and mental abilities. That is often very depressing. You may sense a faster heartbeat, increased muscle tension, higher blood pressure, and find it harder to breathe.
A small amount of stress actually can work to your advantage by helping you to be more alert, and thereby make better decisions at the poker table. But too much stress will cause you to make mistakes – even go on tilt. People have different tolerance levels. It’s best to be prepared.
Like it or not, during a typical game, there are many opportunities to induce stress.
• A misdeal by the dealer when you had a big pocket pair.
• Losing a few hands in a row starting with hole cards you expected would take the pot.
• Your nut flush losing to a concealed full-house.
• Getting rivered constantly.
• Suffering a bad beat on the river.
• After waiting patiently for a long time, your dinner being served lukewarm.
• Just focusing on the game (the players, betting and raising).
As the hours pass at the table and you tire, your ability to cope with stress is bound to diminish. Yet, if you allow stress to overwhelm your skills, you are almost certain to go home a loser.
Toward that end, suggestions from the Arthritis Foundation (Reference: Managing Your Stress at www.arthritis.org) can be applied to the game of poker. (I have added a few of my own suggestions.)
Muscle relaxation – “Close your eyes; take a deep breath and hold it a few seconds. Breathe out, letting your stress flow out with the air.”
Guided imagery – As above, but now relax your muscles as you breathe out. Then think about something that pleases you; imagine it in as much detail as possible. Do it slowly, enjoying each detail.
Distraction – Avoid mentally dwelling on your stress.
Some suggested actions – Go to the restroom; do some stretching or exercising; drink a soothing cup of tea; make yourself as comfortable as possible – uncross your legs and ankles; sit out a round of play; write a note to yourself about your thoughts and feelings; take a break and go for a brisk walk, while deeply breathing the fresh air.
Most important, whatever you do, don’t continue to play while you feel stressed out. The consequences are bound to be dire.
Stress is one thing; disaster is even worse.
“The Engineer,” noted author and poker teacher in greater Los Angeles, is a member of the Seniors Poker Hall of Fame. Contact George at [email protected].