Hello friends, and welcome to this month’s Joyinmovement newsletter,
Are you good at relaxing? Or does just me asking that question stress you out? There are so many suggestions for how to handle stress, and for sure “try to relax” is always one of them. But I think there can be more effective ways than relaxing to handle stress. Sounds strange, I know, but keep reading and see what you think.
Sometimes there’s a fine line between what we might label as feeling excited versus feeling anxious.
In 2014 a Harvard Business School study compared two very different ways of dealing with stress. Participants were about to deliver a speech or compete in Karaoke Revolution, and everyone was anxious. Some were told to try to calm down. Others were instructed to embrace their nerves and tell themselves they were excited.
Perhaps surprisingly, trying to calm down didn’t reduce participant anxiety. It just highlighted the gap between how people felt and how they thought they should be feeling. By contrast, those who tried to channel their anxiety into excitement felt more confident and prepared. And more importantly, they also gave superior speeches and sang on key more often.
This study is one of many showing that there is more to managing stress than simply trying to relax. And yet most of us continue to emphasize relaxation as the primary defense against stress. In fact, before the Harvard researcher ran her study, she asked a separate group to predict which strategy for pre-performance anxiety would work best. Ninety-one percent chose “try to calm down.”
I find these findings so interesting. It makes total sense that we need multiple strategies for dealing with stress. I don’t know about you, but I find it impossible to ALWAYS calm down. When we can’t calm down, it’s good to know that we can call on the energy of stress to fuel peak performance.
OK, so we’re feeling that stress energy. Now what?
How would you feel about jumping out of an airplane? This question came up just last week when a friend told me that for her 40th birthday she and her sister went skydiving. I’d be scared, but also for years I have wanted to experience skydiving. Maybe you’d be scared too, or maybe you’d find it fun. If I found it scary but you found it fun, how do you think our stress responses to skydiving would differ?
Studies have actually compared the physiological responses of terrified first-timers and experienced skydivers. They don’t differ. Stress hormones soar no matter how experienced a jumper is. Heart rates go up whether people are scared or thrilled. Either way, the autonomic nervous system shows the same reactive patterns. In fact, the similarity of skydivers’ responses led one researcher to argue that “fight or flight” is indistinguishable from “excite and delight.”
Another interesting finding, don’t you think? What this says is that at a physiological level, there isn’t much difference between a fear-based stress response and a feel-good adrenaline rush. Both flood the body and brain with energy to help you rise to a challenge. Yet how you interpret your pounding heart and sweaty palms can be the difference between feeling panicked and feeling revved up.
It turns out that choosing a positive interpretation of stress is something many elite performers and athletes have learned to do. Most people view stress as debilitating, but accomplished people/athletes tend to view it as energy that can fuel them. They don’t see stress as a barrier to performance, and they don’t view anxiety as a signal they are going to choke. And while non-elite athletes focus on using relaxation techniques to calm nerves, elite athletes interpret their anxiety as helpful, and they attempt to harness its energy through self-talk and visualization.
When people adopt this mindset of stress as helpful and reframe it as “excite and delight”, it often improves performance in many areas of life. Studies I’ve read show:
1. Golfers make better shots when they are encouraged to reinterpret physical stress symptoms as energy.
2. Students given the same instructions before a stressful exam score higher and report less emotional exhaustion.
3. New hires walk away from a negotiation with higher starting salaries when told to view their stress response as helpful.
Here’s the point: When something you care about is at stake, it’s okay to feel stressed. Utilizing the energy of stress can help you succeed.
You can also use stress to develop a growth mindset.
Think of a time in your life that changed you in a positive way. Maybe you came to recognize your own strength, or you found greater appreciation for your life. Maybe you discovered your courage or developed more compassion for others. Maybe it was a turning point that forced you to reconsider your priorities or make an important change.
Whatever your story is, my guess is that it was also stressful while you were going through it. Psychologists know that it is through stress that we learn and grow, even if the process isn’t always fun. Difficult experiences can have positive outcomes. We can develop resilience and personal growth that come from overcoming obstacles.
Remembering this during times of stress can make you more resilient. Researchers at Hope College asked participants to think about a recent experience that was emotionally painful. Typically, this creates an unhealthy stress response, marked by anger, shame and elevated blood pressure. But when participants were asked to think about what they could learn from the experience, they shifted into a healthier state. Instead of fuming, they reported feelings of gratitude and joy. They also had higher heart rate variability, a sign of physical and emotional resilience.
Here’s the point: Using the strategy of thinking about how a stressful situation can contribute to your personal goals and growth teaches you about resilience and using stress to produce a more effective outcome.
Here’s a third option and another interesting point.
Imagine two people in a hospital waiting room, both worried. One reaches out to hold the other’s hand, hoping to comfort her and offer compassion. Which of the two will experience greater stress relief?
Both will likely feel better, but the person who offered the compassion will get the bigger benefit. Is this what you guessed?
Neuroscientists have studied what happens in the brain during social support, and giving support reduces stress significantly more than receiving support. Helping someone else decreases activity in the fear system of the brain and increases activity in the brain’s hope circuit. Even just thinking about helping and encouraging someone else can create the same stress-relieving changes in the brain. That’s pretty powerful if you ask me.
In fact, connecting to any prosocial goal seems to reduce stress and boost resilience. University of Michigan researchers wanted to know how a bigger-than-self mindset would affect people who were about to complete a competitive job interview. They asked some participants to spend a few minutes thinking about what they wanted to contribute to the world, and how the job would allow them to pursue these prosocial goals. Compared with others in the study, these participants had healthier levels of the stress hormones ACTH and cortisol before and during the interview. They also returned to their nonstressed baseline faster.
Another study found that reflecting on prosocial motivations, for example, the joy you take in caring for others, or your commitment to giving back to your community, helped participants recover from a painful social rejection. Those who thought about their prosocial behavior felt more loving, compassionate and connected, and were better able to resist the temptation of cookies the experimenter left in the room! OK, so resisting cookies isn’t the biggest deal in the world but I hope you get what the researchers are helping us understand.
In a moment of stress, thinking about others who might also be struggling, or connecting to the joy of helping others, can be a powerful source of resilience and stress relief.
So why am I sharing all this with you? I want you to develop skills to handle all the challenges in your life. I’m working on this too and I like to have company on my journeys!
Here’s what we need to do:
1. Embrace your nerves. When you feel your heart pounding, palms sweating or mind racing, remember that these are signs of an adrenaline rush that can fuel peak performance. Remind yourself that even the most accomplished athletes, performers, and leaders experience anxiety, and the most successful choose to channel their stress into energy and positive motivation.
2. Reflect on how you have grown from adversity. This strategy works well for me. What past difficulties have strengthened you and given you a greater sense of your own capabilities and purpose? How has training your body and mind, through fitness and healthy lifestyle choices you make, helped you handle other challenges in your life?
3. Enjoy and benefit from being part of something bigger than yourself. Recognize and celebrate how you help yourself and others. Think about the countless people (friends, family, co-workers), who benefit from the positive changes you’ve made. Be proud to be part of a community that inspires others to health and well-being.
Wow, I wrote much more than I intended to on this topic but some Joyinmovement newsletters are like that.
Make October a great month and find Joyinmovement,