How stress actually improves our performance

1: We’ve got it all wrong.

We’ve been taught that stress is bad for us.

This belief is harmful, Kelly McGonigal argues in The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It: “The best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.”

The fight-or-flight survival instinct is part of our stress response.  When something major happens, our sympathetic nervous system directs our entire body to mobilize energy.  Our liver dumps fat and sugar into our bloodstream for fuel.  Our breathing deepens so that more oxygen is delivered to our heart.  And our heart rate speeds up to deliver the oxygen, fat, and sugar to our muscles and brain.  In all these ways, our stress response gets us ready to face whatever challenges lie in front of us.

“This part of the stress response can give [us] extraordinary physical abilities,” Kelly writes.  “There are countless news reports of so-called hysterical strength attributed to stress, including the story of two teenage girls in Lebanon, Oregon, who raised a three-thousand-pound tractor off their father, who was trapped underneath. ‘I don’t know how I lifted it, it was just so heavy,’ one of the girls told reporters. ‘But we just did it.’  Many people have this kind of experience during stress: [We] don’t know how they find the strength or courage to act.  But when it matters most, [our] bodies give [us] the energy and will to do what’s necessary.”

The energy we get from stress doesn’t just help our body.  Adrenaline also wakes up our brain.  Our pupils dilate to let in more light, and our hearing sharpens.  “Mind-wandering stops, and less important priorities drop away. Stress can create a state of concentrated attention,” notes Kelly.  

We “also get a motivation boost from a chemical cocktail of endorphins, adrenaline, testosterone, and dopamine.  This side of the stress response is one reason some people enjoy stress– it provides a bit of a rush.  Together, these chemicals increase [our] sense of confidence and power.  They make [us] more willing to pursue [our] goals,” Kelly writes.  If we “get a thrill out of watching a close game or rushing to meet a deadline, [we] know this side of stress.”

2: “However, as many scientists have pointed out, fistfights and quick escapes are not ideal coping strategies for the situations humans deal with every day,” Kelly observes.  

How does a fight-or-flight response help us deal with the threat of being fired?  What happens if we flee our relationships, kids, or job every time things get difficult?  We can’t “punch a past-due mortgage payment,” and it isn’t wise to disappear every time there’s a conflict at home or at work.

If the body’s response to stress is always fight-or-flight, then the stress response begins to look like “evolutionary baggage,” Kelly notes.  “This is the mismatch theory of the stress response—it worked out for our ancestors, but not for us.”

Let’s be clear, she says, “A stress response that supported only two survival strategies—throw a punch or run like hell—would truly be a mismatch for modern life.”

3: But the human stress response turns out to be much more complex and adaptive.

“Fleeing and fighting are not the only strategies [our] body supports.  As with humans themselves, the stress response has evolved, adapting over time to better fit the world we live in now.”

Our body’s answer?  The challenge response.

“Like a fight-or-flight response, a challenge response gives [us] energy and helps [us] perform under pressure,” Kelly notes.  Our heart rate still goes up, our adrenaline spikes, our muscles and brain get more fuel, and our feel-good chemicals surge.

How does the challenge response differ from a fight-or-flight response?

We feel focused, but not fearful.  We release a different ratio of stress hormones, including higher levels of DHEA, which help us recover and learn from stress.

“People who report being in a flow state—a highly enjoyable state of being completely absorbed in what [we] are doing—display clear signs of a challenge response,” says Kelly.  “Artists, athletes, surgeons, video-gamers, and musicians all show this kind of stress response when they’re engaged in their craft or skill.

“Contrary to what many people expect, top performers in these fields aren’t physiologically calm under pressure; rather, they have strong challenge responses.  The stress response gives them access to their mental and physical resources, and the result is increased confidence, enhanced concentration, and peak performance,” Kelly notes.

More tomorrow.
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Reflection: What are my beliefs about stress?  Rather than reduce or avoid stress, when can I embrace it?

Action:  Discuss with my spouse, friend or colleague.

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