Year of Resilience Tip 2: Use stress energy to improve bursts of performance
Have you ever felt the rush of wind and spray of powder speeding downhill on snow skis? The first time you strapped on skis and stood at the top of a hill your stress responses went crazy. Despite the cold, you could feel yourself sweat. Anxiety skyrocketed throughout your body and you had to do some serious self-talk to begin your descent. Even down the hill feelings of panic and fear struck as you worried about falling. But you survived, and if you kept practicing, those stress responses didn’t disappear. They transformed.
Watch interviews with proficient skiers and they all describe those same feelings of exhilaration and excitement that terrified you the first time down the slopes.
Your experience transformed those stressors into energy. Stress became performance fuel.
When Selye first defined stress as a phenomenon in the early 20th century, it was originally used for a situation of distress that generated a biological and emotional response. Over time, he noticed that those same responses occurred even in positive situations. To distinguish between negative and positive stressors, he used the term eustress.
The stress response is a normal natural survival mechanism that brings alertness and attentiveness to a dangerous or challenging situation. The problem with the stress response is when it becomes chronic and we stay in a heightened state of awareness eventually leading to physical disease and mental health issues such as anxiety, burnout, or depression.
Decision-making and problem-solving are heightened in the immediate interaction with a stressful situation. Yet, in a chronic state, those needed skills begin to diminish and worsen.
The problem isn’t stress, but chronic stress. Avoiding stress altogether would prevent skill acquisition and the ability to become resilient over time. Increased stress can increase productivity, but the stress curve is steep and once you go over the pinnacle of the stress curve, negative effects accumulate.
Stress is rooted in emotional responses and internal energy.
Identifying feelings of stress gives you the ability to funnel those emotions into productive energy. To use it effectively you need to be sensitive to the early warning signs of stress overload before it becomes damaging.
We have all done this before. Think back to your school days when you procrastinated on a project or exam prep. Suddenly the deadline appears and you find yourself frantically cramming. The panic of being unprepared helps you master the information to successfully pass. But if you lived in that world of daily and hourly deadlines with no recovery periods, you would fail. Unfortunately, that is the world we have often constructed in our work lives.
Benefits of Stress
Positive use of stress can give us something to look forward to. It can help us grow and develop into stronger individuals.
Here are several ways that eustress can benefit us:
- It provides you with a burst of energy
- It can motivate you to reach your goals
- It sharpens your attention and focuses
- It can help you accomplish tasks more efficiently
- It can alert you to danger
- It can help you build resilience
- It can help you develop a deep connection with others
Psychologist Lev Vygotsky observed that individuals learned best when they were challenged just outside their current comfort zone. He called this the “zone of proximal development”. This is the gap between what you have mastered and what you can achieve with new development.
Using Stress to Your Advantage
Researcher Kelly McGonigal identified the stress paradox — “happy lives contain stress, and stress-free lives don’t guarantee happiness.”
If stress has potential positive benefits by giving us bursts of energy, and enhanced focus, how can we use it to increase our performance and work capacity?
- Notice and acknowledge it. Once you notice feelings of stress, don’t fight them. Ask yourself what it is trying to tell you or what you are going to get from it. This places you outside of the stress event as an observer where you can have greater control over your response.
- Don’t give in to worry. For many of us, our immediate response to feelings of stress is to assume something bad is happening. We begin to worry because it gives a sense of control. Unfortunately, worry drains away your energy.
- Look for opportunities. Reframe the feelings of stress. The stress response is your body’s way of saying “pay attention to this.” Ask yourself why you feel stressed and if there is an opportunity for you.
- Use your imagination. Recall a stressful situation you overcame in the past. Your memory can stir feelings of confidence that builds resilience.
- Create time to recover. To continually use stress as energy for greater productivity, you can’t live in the state. You will crash. You must build time to recover after pushing through the stressor.
You will begin to use stress to your advantage and build resilience skills.
Regardless of the occupation, we all are put into high-stress environments from time to time.
Those events can also build resilience and increase performance when tackled with care. “Training in high-stress situations increases what psychologists call “situational awareness.” Defined as the ability to absorb information accurately, assess it calmly, and respond appropriately, situational awareness is essentially the ability to keep cool when all hell breaks loose,” wrote Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.
Stress is usually triggered by anxiety and uncertainty. Reframing the event allows you to remove one of these components. Anxiety is internal but pausing and asking yourself questions lessens the anxiety. Uncertainty is external. You may not be able to control it, but you can analyze what you already know and understand which gives you partial control.
Integrating these tips into your work life will help you to begin reframing stress and using it to your advantage. Self-awareness is the secret. If you are looking for resources to quickly build self-awareness skills, check out the latest Fierce tools with the Pulse App and the new Fierce Resilience Program.