While stress may never be your friend, it needn’t be your enemy.
If managed, stress is an opportunity for growth, development, and learning. Yet, for this to happen, we need to change our perception of what pressure is and what it means to us.
How does stress affect us?
Fear and anxiety are major causes of stress and result in a combination of responses, including:
Physical: clammy hands and heart palpitation.
Cognitive: decreased rational thinking and reduced memory performance.
Behavioural: avoidance of situations, nervous pacing, fidgeting.
Yet, stress can be enhancing when its creative power is harnessed and its adverse effects minimized.
“ A sense of everything coming together or clicking into place, even in challenging situations.”
Alia Crum, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University–having worked with Navy SEALS and professional athletes–advocates a three-step approach to responding to pressure.
Step one — See your stress
Rather than ignore stress — label it.
I’m stressed about my exams.
I’m stressed about the presentation tomorrow.
Merely naming it can move reactivity in the brain from automatic reactive centers to conscious, deliberate ones.
Seeing it as something enhancing — rather than to be avoided or debilitating — changes our physical and mental response.
Step Two — Own it
When the stress seems like too much, own it.
Stress shows us that we care about something and that it should be embraced.
After all, we wouldn’t be stressed if something wasn’t necessary to us. And if something is important to us, it is unlikely to be achieved easily.
A promotion, or a qualification, takes hard work; it involves pressure that must be overcome and provides an opportunity for further growth.
Step Three — Use it
Our body and mind have evolved to respond to stress.
Releases of dopamine and adrenaline increase alertness and narrow our focus, preparing us to meet the situation’s growing demands. It enables us to thrive rather than just survive.
The issue is not the stress itself but rather how we use it or our response to it. Reframing it to be something beneficial can have a positive impact. Research shows that students seeing stress as positive perform better.
Reframing stress can lead to a healthier perception, positive growth, and a tool for overcoming existing and future obstacles.
However, there are exceptions. Long-term stress and life-changing events, such as bereavement, family and relationship disputes, along with health issues can be debilitating and will often benefit from seeking professional support.
For more immediate situations, the right balance between stress and ability leads to your very best performance — whether in business, education, or sport.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term flow to refer to optimum performances that arise from the delicate line between challenge and skillset.
He describes it as:
“A harmonious and intrinsically rewarding state characterized by intense focus and absorption in a specific activity, to the exclusion of irrelevant thoughts and emotions.”
If the challenge is too easy, we become bored and detached, too tricky, and we can become anxious and feel the activity is not worth performing.
If the balance is just right and we are on the edge of our skill limits, we enter flow.
When managed, stress can become not only an opportunity for success but a chance to thrive and grow.
Ready to learn more?
Click here to find out about mental fitness 101.