Stress Survival Guide: Part 2 – Get the Best out of Stress
Following on from the first part of our Stress Survival Guide (Good Stress, Bad Stress), we now focus on dealing with pressure. Whist we can’t always control the triggers (e.g. exams, work, money worries), we can control our response to stress. So today we look at how we can use it to our advantage. And on Thursday we’ll explore how to limit the negative effects, if we start to feel overwhelmed.
Get the Best out of Stress
Stress can be an empowering tool – it’s all about how we see it and use it
In the BBC documentary ‘The Truth About Stress‘ (1), Professor Ian Robertson (neuroscientist and clinical psychologist) shows how we can change our perception of a threat from negative to positive. He explains that the physical symptoms of stress (sweating, butterflies, increased heart rate etc.) mirror those of excitement. And you can trick your brain into interpreting anxiety emotions as excitement. So rather than fear, you feel in control, and can channel your energy to rise to the challenge ahead. He suggests this is actually easier than the instinctive reaction of trying to calm yourself, which involves completely opposite symptoms.
So when you next feel the pressure, adopt confident body language (stand up straight, head up, shoulders back), take a few deep breaths and tell yourself ‘I’m excited!’ Fake it till you make it!
Sceptical? Well so were we – it might work for their zip wire experiment or karaoke competition, but how about exams or the workplace? Interestingly, the business executives we spoke to, confirmed that if you feel well-prepared, you really can turn your stress into more positive emotions of challenge, confidence and excitement.
Sports psychologist Tom Bates echoes these views, explaining how a positive mindset can enable us all to perform at our peak. He trains athletes to reframe how they see stress – as a sign that their body is ready to perform when their absolute best is required. In this way, it can drive success instead of hindering performance. (1)
In the inspiring Ted Talk below, Kelly McGonigal (health psychologist) shows that the way we think about stress has significant implications, not just for performance but also for our health.
‘When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress’
What happens? Typically, when you’re under pressure, your heart rate increases and blood vessels constrict (which is one reason why chronic stress is linked to heart disease). But if you accept that stress means your body is helping you rise to an imminent challenge, you will feel less anxious and more confident, and your blood vessels stay relaxed, which actually mimics the emotions of joy and courage. So a positive mindset elicits a healthier physical stress response, which could potentially save your life!
An additional benefit of the stress response is the neuro hormones pumped out by the body, which make us crave social interaction, motivating us to reach out for support when we most need it. Incredible, right?
So we can’t always change a situation, but we can certainly change our response. The way we see stress and use it, can make all the difference between a poor outcome and a great one – mindset defines performance, and it can also create a healthier physical stress response. So…. next time you’re sitting exams, attending an interview or doing a presentation, recognise those nervous feelings as a good sign – your stress hormones are preparing your mind and body to perform at their best during the challenge ahead.
Believe it, and you’ll nail it!
To be continued….read the other instalments of our Stress Survival Guide:
(1) The Truth About Stress BBC One (10 May 2017)