When you hear the word “stress”, what thoughts pop into your head? My guess is that they aren’t pleasant thoughts. More than likely they’re negative thoughts. This is largely due to a misunderstanding about the benefits stress can provide. That’s right, I said benefits.
In fact, your initial stress response helps you rise to challenges by stimulating your body and brain for action. It sharpens your senses and focuses your mind on the most critical task. With these benefits in mind, Stanford psychologist and author of ‘The Upside of Stress’, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D, states that stress provides us with the ‘Biology of Courage’ where you can feel focused rather than fearful, and up for the challenge rather than overwhelmed.
This feeling of being ‘focused not fearful’ is also a great descriptor for those people that have experienced working in a flow state, otherwise known as the zone. The zone is that time that although you were under pressure and stress, everything seemed to effortlessly click for you. At those times you probably didn’t complain about feeling stressed but rather you welcomed the stress as the catalyst for creating your high performance.
In immunology, we commonly inject a small amount of a weakened germ to tell our immune system to build up the antibodies to fight future germs. Similarly, psychologists say we can do the same with stress. We call this “stress inoculation”. This approach is commonly used in special forces training and in athletic training. Dr. McGonigal refers to this training as a stress vaccine to the brain, so that when the “real bullets start flying”, the brain derives the performance enhancement benefits of stress rather than the paralysis it can also create.
So what is the key to maximizing the benefits of stress and minimizing the potential dangers? First, visualize yourself calmly dealing with your stressors and remaining in control of your emotions and your actions.
Second, learn and practice a high performance breathing technique like equal or box breathing to prevent being overwhelmed with the reflexive hormonal response stress will create.
Third, be sure to get recovery before and after your stressful inoculations so your body can reset your autonomic nervous system and adapt by becoming more resilient.
Fourth, be sure to give your body and brain the nutrition it needs to perform during stressful situations.
Finally, be sure to build regular movement into your days because all of the stress response is designed to make your body move, not sit.
So the next time you’re feeling stressed, ask yourself how you can use this stress to learn, to improve your performance, to improve your stress resistance, and to build your capacity to handle even greater stressors in the future.
As always we’d love to hear your thoughts.
Tignum//Director of Performance Coaching