How the stress response is helping you to perform under pressure

Mar 19, 2019
Feelings we probably all recognize … Hot & sweaty, heart racing, a surge of energy & desire to move, muscles tense or twitchy, maybe you need the loo (again), your mind is running through every scenario and move with an unparalleled sense of focus, and points out every possible threat.

In a professional environment, this would probably be labeled stress and considered something we should eliminate. We should calm down in order to be at our best.  But in a sporting/entertainment environment, it is more often thought of as being amped up or primed ready to rise to the challenge and perform at our best.

The science of viewing stress as helpful

No matter what the stressor – big or small, real or imagined – our nervous system responds by releasing adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol into our bloodstream. It is the presence of these hormones that get us ready for action. 

RESEARCH SHOWS* that people who were asked to think about how their stress responses might be helpful before a test showed

  • better test results
  • more confidence,
  • healthier physical symptoms (lower blood vessel constriction)
  • faster recovery from the stress state

than those who were encouraged to “calm down” or offered a distraction from the stress.

It is our appraisal of a stressful situation rather than the situation itself that matters in the stress response – is it a potential negative (threat) or positive (challenge)?**

How to reframe your stress response for better outcomes

Try running through the following questions when you start to feel stress leading up to an event or situation:

Body Scan – What sensations am I feeling? Start at the toes and work up to the head just identifying what your body is doing in reaction to the situation.  What is the energy in each specific sensation doing to prepare me for the challenge? 

  • Racing heart, sweating palms – it’s my muscles warming up ready for action!
  • Inability to think about anything else & scanning for threats – focused on survival

Mind ScanWhat am I thinking?  Is this helping me right now? Like the body scan, a thought scan will allow you to focus on thoughts that help move forward in the situation.

These are both super simple mindfulness techniques that will bring your thoughts back to the present… and away from “Agghhh, I'm so stressed!  This is going to be a disaster”

What action can I take to support my goal?  with the rational, creative, and empathetic brain now back online, you can start identifying things you can do to take back control of the situation or people who are there to help & support you.

How is this an opportunity to prove myself & demonstrate my values & strengths? Shifting the focus of potential negative outcomes and on to areas for mastery, growth, or pride will physically change your stress response to increase learning and trigger the release of the happy chemical serotonin.

Like all interventions, this is best practiced regularly so that it becomes an easy tool to call up the instant stressors hit.

Try using this daily on even small things – one more push in the gym, a conversation with a colleague, irritation at running late…

Is there one thing you could reframe today for a more helpful, supportive reaction to pressure?

*studies by Jaimeson et al 2010, 2012, 2014 & 2015; The “Embrace Stress” reappraisal – Crum, Achor, Rothstein & Salovey 2014

** Lazarus and Folksman’s (1984) model of Stress


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