Experiencing stress is a normal part of being human, but can we change our ‘stress mindset’ and even improve our performance in response to stress?
In one sense, stress is simply our response when we experience some form of challenge or demand. Whether the stress is physical or psychological, heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure increases and mental alertness is enhanced.
Stress is not always a ‘bad thing’. It would actually be counter-productive to remove all stress from our lives. ‘Positive stress’ can motivate us, focus our energy, feel exciting and improve performance, providing we feel that the demands being made of us are within our coping abilities.
The problems arise when we perceive challenges as being beyond our capabilities. This can lead to ‘negative stress’, anxiety or concern, unpleasant feelings and impaired performance. If we don’t manage it, negative stress can persist for extended periods.
How can we learn to manage stress?
In many ways, sport is the ultimate testing ground for ‘stress management’. Every training session and competition is a ‘stressor’ and even the most successful athletes will lose many more times than they win, resulting in continuous ‘micro-doses of failure’.
In the immediate aftermath of stress, performance is decreased but, providing sufficient resources are available, the body recovers and performance bounces back. We often talk about this ‘bouncing back’ as the key characteristic of resilient individuals.
It’s possible for humans to adapt to stress and achieve levels of performance even higher than before. In sport, we call this process ‘super-compensation’, but its principle holds true in many spheres of life.
The evidence in the scientific literature is compelling. Even in the most demanding situations, individuals with a clear sense of purpose, those who feel engaged and present in their daily life, people who enjoy what they do, have meaningful relationships and find a sense of measurable accomplishment in their work, can achieve this ‘super-compensation’ in response to stress (1).
In fact, in a military context, researchers have identified that it’s possible for soldiers who exhibit these characteristics to experience ‘post-traumatic growth’ following even the most stressful experiences (2). Resilience and our capacity to recover, and even grow, in response to stressful situations can be trained and improved.
Change your stress mindset
In addition, recent research has demonstrated that people who have a more positive view of stress are more likely respond positively to it.
In a 2013 study, researchers conducted a 3-part study (3). Part 1 of the study involved the validation of a test designed to help the researchers understand the study subject’s mindset in relation to stress. Specifically, the researchers identified two stress mindsets. The first mindset was characterised by people who believed that stress had a positive effect on their performance. The second mindset was characterised by people who believed that stress has a negative effect.
In the second part of the study, the researchers demonstrated that it was possible to change the subject’s stress mindset simply by watching a series of short educational videos.
Some of the videos suggested that stress is performance enhancing, others suggested that stress is debilitating.
In the final part of the study, the researchers described the physiological and behavioural impact of these two stress mindsets. Subjects who believed that stress is performance enhancing exhibited moderate cortisol reactivity (the ‘stress hormone) and actively sought detailed feedback after their performance (a public speaking exercise). Together, the three parts of the study illustrate that our stress mindset is a useful determinant of our likely response to stress and that perceiving stress as a challenge, rather than a threat, is more likely to result in physiological responses that improve thinking and cause less physical damage.
Performance enhancing stress
It can be tempting to invest our energy in searching for ways to reduce stress. In some ways, this approach makes sense. However, it’s impossible to eliminate all stress from our lives, so we should be challenged and encouraged that we can we can change our view of stress, bounce back stronger when we experience stressful circumstances and even use stress to enhance our performance.
- Resilience and our capacity to recover, and even grow, in response to stressful situations can be trained and improved.
- Invest in relationships with people who can support and help you to grow through stressful experiences.
- Experiment with reframing the stressful experience as a challenge and learning experience.
And next time you experience stress, remind yourself that it’s a normal part of being human.
1) Srivastava, K. (2011) Positive mental health and its relationship with resilience. Ind Psychiatry J. 20(2). p. 75–76.
2) Reivich KJ, Seligman ME, McBride S. (2011) Master resilience training in the U.S. Army. Am Psychol. 66. p. 25–34.
3) Crum A.J, Salovey P, Achor S. (2013) Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. p. 716-733