Stress and the Olympics

Here’s an interesting application of understanding stress. People who have spinal injuries usually lose control of their autonomic nervous system as well as their limbs, which means that their bodies do not respond to stress signals from the brain in the same way that normal people do – ‘normally’ an athlete, at the start of a race feels increased anxiety and the hypothalamus sends signals to the body to be prepared for fight/flight. Such arousal is important to perform well.

The bodies of people with spinal injuries don’t respond to such signals, so they have turned to a practice called ‘boosting’, where they intentionally break their toe or sit on their scrotum or something to generate pain signals that will kick start their body’s reaction to stress. The person will not feel any pain but blood pressure and heart rate will increase and performance improves. Not surprisingly the International Olympics committee has banned boosting for obvious health reasons. The problem is that some paralympic sports competitors don’t have injuries that disable their autonomic nervous systems so there are unfair disadvantages for those athletes. Nothing is simple.