⏰ 6 min read
Sweat, shakes and slip-ups
The familiar feeling of stress can hit us at game-changing moments in our lives. Whether it’s pitching for funding or shooting for a goal, no matter how much you prepare, stress can sometimes get the better of us.
On top of this, we are frequently told that stress is bad for us, that too much stress for long periods can exacerbate health problems.
Stress is bad. Right?
Well, this week’s ⚡ glitch shows us that stress is not actually bad for us, but the way we think about it is.
A challenge or a threat?
We experience stress as either a challenge or a threat.
If we imagine stress as a straight line, at one end you have zero stress, the most chilled state you could be and at ten your anxiety levels have sky-rocketed. Somewhere in the middle, around 5 or 6, you have the early physical and mental signs of stress but you haven’t quite freaked out yet.
At this middle point, you are in a ‘challenge state’. A challenge state reflects a positive mental approach to pressure situations where our mental resources meet the demands of the situation. We experience physiological changes, like increased heart rate and decreased blood vessel constriction that ensures that blood can get to our brain efficiently. This helps us concentrate, make decisions and have more control over our thoughts and emotions.
Those who view stress as a negative thing (and interpret their flushed face, raised heart rate or sweaty palms as a sign that they aren’t coping) are more likely to zoom right to 10, the ‘threat state’. In this state the blood vessels constrict, the heart rate increases and glucose and oxygen to the brain is slowed down, reducing our ability to focus and make good decisions.
Our initial response to being put in a high-pressure situation happens unconsciously, it is automated based on our speedy evaluation of the situation. Where we land on the line of stress is directly linked to how we perceive and respond to stress generally. Some of us respond in a way that makes us perform better — entering the challenge state. But some of us enter a threat state, which hinders performance and health.
How stress affects our performance
The relationship between stress and its effect on our performance is called the Yerkes–Dodson law. The law states that performance increases with physiological or mental stress, but only up to a point — the optimum point of stress, a.k.a the challenge state.
In this state, our perceptions, thoughts and actions all speed up to increase our chance of survival. Our mind becomes focused, we become more alert and aware. This type of stress is awesome — it keeps us alive and performing at our best.
Successful people, like the best athletes in the world, have honed these sensory systems through thousands of hours of practice in high-pressure situations.
The Matrix effect
Lewis Hamilton — F1 GOAT, political activist — says that in moments of extreme pressure, like when he approaches a corner at top speeds of 150mph+, he experiences time slowing down. “When you’re driving a car it’s very chaotic” Lewis Hamilton says “ It’s very erratic so much is happening. All the senses that we have they’re all firing on maximum.” And, when he approaches a corner, everything slows down. His visual field seems to widen and for a few seconds, Hamilton feels like he can see far more than he would normally: every detail on the track, every blade of grass.
Larry Bird, professional basketball coach, used to say that at critical moments in the game, the crowd would go quiet and the players seemed to move in slow motion.
This is referred to as ‘The Matrix Effect’, the feeling of time slowing down at moments of extreme pressure and stress. Of course, time itself isn’t slowing down, but in relation to the speeding up of our mental processes, the world outside seems to be moving more slowly.
As well as this sense of time slowing down, people also report extreme clarity, tunnel vision, diminished sound.
Those who have honed this physical and mental response and perceive it as a positive experience, like Lewis Hamilton, respond efficiently and effectively and seem to have much more time than everyone else.
✍️ Experiment: Could there be an optimum heart rate?
Dave Grossman, a former lieutenant colonel, advocates this optimal state of stress, the range in which stress can actually improve our performance. He says that it is when our heart rate is between 115 and 145 beats per minute. After 145, Grossman states, bad things start to happen — complex motor skills start to break down and at 175 we see an absolute breakdown of cognitive processing.
Could becoming aware of our heart rate and maintaining it within the optimal zone aid our performance? One to test…
Believing stress is harmful for your health makes you more likely to experience health problems
Our perception of stress not only hinders our performance, but also our health. At Gltchs we focus more on brain health and performance so I won’t go too much into this, but the fact that this information could save lives meant I had to include this. Please go and watch this TED talk to learn why thinking stress is bad for your health, is bad for your health and could take years off your life!
Changing your mind about stress can change your life
When you change your mind about stress, you can change its effects on your performance and health. Instead of perceiving stress as a negative experience, we can view signs of stress as signs that your body is energised, and preparing you to meet the challenge. Your heart is pounding faster to get blood to your brain, your face is flushed because there is more oxygen in your brain making it work faster and with more clarity.
Instead of letting yourself move to threat state, take a deep breath, believe that your mind and body are optimised and carry on. It may be hard at first but after practice it will become more natural for you to respond in a new way.
Australian behaviour change expert Alison Earl, guest lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health suggests the ROAR approach to stress:
Recognise what’s happening in your body when you feel stressed (think of physical sensations of stress as energy to be harnessed.)
Owning the opportunity to intervene and influence your response.
Activate the energy: “What can you do right now to use this energy in the service of your goals?”
Recharge and reward. This is so important after a period of high stress to rebuild your resilience.
- We experience stress as either a challenge or a threat
- A challenge state reflects a positive mental approach to pressure situations where our mental resources meet the demands of the situation.
- The way we practice responding to stress can become our automatic response, we are able to make stress our friend.
- Respond with ROAR: recognise, own, activate and recharge
- We can achieve that optimal zone of stress, improve our performance and extend our life expectancy just by believing that stress really is awesome.