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Poker Mental Game & Planning

Dealing With Stress in Poker

5,437 Views on 28/3/17

Instead of a quick stress reaction caused by a predator sighting, we're no subjected to the sources causing prolonged stress like family obligations, financial issues or variance at the poker table.

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Stress is a fact of life. Anxiety affects everyone from a preschool teacher to a fortune 500 CEO. The fight or flight response caused by the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol was an important evolutionary mechanism allowing our ancestors to suppress many basic functions of the body in order to maximize their reaction time and through that increase their chance of survival.

If not for the stress it's entirely possible that we wouldn't survive long enough as a species to learn 'when to fold them and when to hold them'. Unfortunately, while stress was very effective in times where giant cat posed a serious threat to our survival it's far less effective in a world in which cat videos are one of the leading sources of entertainment.

The negative effect that stress has on our body can be really devastating given how much the main stressors changed. Instead of a quick stress reaction caused by a predator sighting,  we're no subjected to the sources causing prolonged stress like family obligations, financial issues or variance at the poker table.

The Effects of Too Much Stress

While stress in inevitable it's in our best interest to manage the amount of stress that we experience and strengthen both our mind and the body in order to deal with it. Too much stress can result can have some very unpleasant results.

Elevated levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol can cause or greatly contribute to a number of serious health issues including increased blood pressure, depression, obesity, sleep apnea or erectile dysfunction. Anxiety can reduce our cognitive functions which can wreak havoc both in our professional and personal life. Fighting stress is a high stakes game where we can lose much more than our bankroll.

It's important to point out that stress can become a very serious problem. It's not always possible to deal with anxiety on our own and medication can become a necessary part of the process. In that case, it's best to consult a licensed professional.

Why Can Poker Become So Stressful?

"The fight or flight response" has a great deal of uncertainty in the name itself and few things in this world offer more uncertainty than poker, especially on a professional level. Variance makes it so it's impossible for a poker player to ever know his or her exact win rate.

Even if we somehow manage to gather enough data and employ enough objective awareness to figure out that our win rate is somewhere in the neighborhood of very impressive 8-12bb/100 we still can't say with 100% certainty that our current month is going to be a winning one.

Even absolute crushers can experience downswing and break even stretches spanning well over 100k hands. This, of course, becomes much more unlikely with increased skill, but there's no way around it - uncertainty is the name of the game. If we add the need to pay the bills or a somewhat high burn-rate of a live tournament pro it's very easy to imagine how professional players could suffer from stress related issues.

You don't even have to be a professional player to experience the insane amount of stress that poker has the potential to inflict on our lives. Even if you don't rely on the money earned at the poker tables to pay your bills, the volatile and inconsistent nature of short term poker results can create a negative impact loop causing you to doubt your ability to win or improve at the game.

This is the reason why learning how to deal with stress can be as important for poker players as learning the optimal range for defending the blinds.

Dealing With Stress

The answer to the question of stress management is painfully simple. As long as your issue is not severe enough to merit a medical intervention, all you need to do is to make sure your mind and body are as strong and healthy as they can be to minimize the potential negative effect stress can have on you.

Unfortunately, there's a certain degree of tragedy in painfully obvious answers - even though most people are aware of the necessary steps not many of them take them. With that in mind, let's lay out a simple plan to get your mind and body as ready for dealing with stress as they possibly can be.

First of all, take a close look at your sleep schedule. There are plenty of resources out there that can help you optimize your sleep and you can find a good amount of solid information on this and most of the other topics I'll mention on the PokerVIP website.

Long story short, if you think that you're one of those lucky few people who can survive on 5-6 hours of sleep you're most likely mistaken. Bump that up to 8 hours and see how fast your body and mind will thank you for it with increased performance and lowered stress levels.

Adjust your habits (set-up an evening routine, reduce blue light exposure, supplement with melatonin if necessary) and your bedroom (make it cool, calm and quiet) to increase to chance of going to sleep and waking up the same time each day.

Become more physically active. Studies show that adding just 30 minutes of low-intensity exercise like brisk walking to your routine can have a variety of health benefits (stress reduction included) and even dramatically reduce your chance of dying. If you can add some weight training on top of that to strengthen your muscles and bones - even better.

Developing the ability to bench press 100kg might seem like a fairly strange way of fighting with stress and anxiety, but it definitely works. Same goes for a solid diet. While you'll find plenty of diehard enthusiast preaching the benefits of ketogenic, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, low-carb, high-protein, paleo - you name it, just remember to eat a bunch of micronutrients rich whole foods and reduce the number of processed foods that you consume.

Figure out what your total daily energy expenditure is (using TDEE calculator) and eat in accordance with your fitness goals (small 5-15% calorie deficit when trying to lose weight, small surplus when trying to build muscle etc.).

Practice self-awareness and mindfulness training. Consider meditation or yoga. This can be a perfect way to unwind and quiet your mind. Studies show that meditation can even rewire faulty pathways in your brain and that can greatly reduce the amount of stress in your life. The more mindful breaths a day you take the easier reducing anxiety will become for you.

Given that stress is caused by uncertainty, try to reduce it by planning and setting effective goals. If you have a solid bankroll management strategy it's going to be easier for you to accept a downswing and treat going down in levels as a fact of life. If you make a habit of taking a 5-minute mindful break every hour of play you'll reduce the possibility that the stress reaction will cause you to chase losses.

If you have a stop loss strategy, you eliminate the stress inducing uncertainty associated with a fear of a bad session etc.

Stress as a Tool

All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing, not a poison." - Paracelsus

Lastly, it's important to point out the fact that stress in small, controlled doses can actually be beneficial. Some amount of anxiety is actually necessary for the optimal performance as explained in the works of Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson at the beginning of the last century.

The beginning of the 21st century marked the popularity of the term called flow which - like the Yerkes-Dodson law before it - argues that there's, in fact, a certain amount of anxiety necessary for the optimal level of performance.

If we learn how to deal with stress, we can stop fearing it and use it instead as a performance booster and a source of motivation.

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Matt VIP

Matt is predominantly a mental game and planning expert, with a terrific knowledge of science, meditation, practical methods of improvement and of course, a good level of poker skill! Look out for his strategy articles and follow him for hi ... Read More

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