Stress is inevitable, but can it enhance performance or does it always harm us?
Stress is reported as one of the significant ‘modern diseases’. People are reporting feeling so ’stressed’ from their work and private lives that it making them physically and psychologically ill.
When you consider performance, stress plays a massive role in dragging people out of their peak performance states into less resourceful ones. Stress is almost contagious, with people being influenced by stress that others experience to become stressed themselves.
Have we created a world where stress is inevitable, and we are all just victims of our circumstance – or is there more to stress, and can we do more than just manage it?
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s response to being forced to operate outside its comfort zone. When we are in our comfort zone, we have the belief and expectation that we can cope with the circumstances and need no additional effort or arousal to perform. However, when we perceive that we are outside our comfort zone, the body responds with increased response preparedness, arousal and focus to help us ‘cope’ back to comfort.
Are we designed to cope with stress?
At one level, coping with challenge is what life is all about. Stress is inevitable, and could even be considered a necessary part of life. We are not always going to be in our comfort zones, and having processes to deal with this is critical to survival.
People exist in continually changing environments and their very existence can be construed as an expression of how they cope with that change. The mechanisms that have evolved to cope with change are seen as ‘stress’, which can be defined as a threat, real or implied, to the psychological or physiological integrity of an individual.
Humans are designed to operate across a ‘range’ of circumstances- a flexibility based on an individual’s tolerance around normal set-points or standards, reflecting the normal ‘ups and downs’ of their environment. However, when a person experiences or perceives stressors outside this ‘comfort zone’, a stress response is induced.
In extreme cases, this can be seen as the ‘fight or flight’ response. Being out of our comfort zone is seen as a threat, so the threat response is invoked. This includes changes in heart rate, sweating, vasodilation, metabolism, breathing, alertness, concentration and focus.
There is evidence that at a critical threshold of acute stress, the brain invokes its most primitive survival responses and completely bypasses the cognitive mechanisms of the prefrontal cortex. It also appears that exposure to lower levels of chronic stress may also impair cognitive function over time.
Stress is a perfectly acceptable response when a person is under true threat. The change in physiology and cognitive process acts to prepare the person to take action, and to focus exclusively on the issues at hand (decreases distraction by non-relevant things). When the stressor is removed, the body no longer needs to create the stress response and the person can calm down again.
However, consider a person in a modern urban scenario. They feel ‘stressed’ at work, stressed in the traffic, stressed by their social circumstances. They are always running moderate levels of stress, with the occasional ‘spike’ into acute stress as specific situations arise.
Notice how the stress can be caused by be physical, emotional, social or psychological stressors. Stressors may be acute, sequential, episodic, chronically intermittent, sustained, or anticipated . There does not even need to be a true ‘threat’, but rather the individual evaluates it subjectively as a threat (as they are out of their comfort zone) and responds with ‘Stress’. This cognitive evaluation of circumstance is critical in the stress response. If I don’t believe that the stressor takes me out of my comfort zone or offers a potential threat, I simply don’t generate the stress response. This is why two people can react completely differently to the same stimulus or circumstance, as their evaluations of their own personal coping ability and threat modify their response.
Consider the long term effects as the body adjusts to being in a state of high arousal and focus for long periods of time. Is it any wonder underlying damage is caused, leading to heart, respiratory, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal and other ailments, as well as anxiety and panic attacks.
How do we react to stress?
Our reaction to any stressor depends on a number of factors: The cognitive evaluation of the stressor based upon prior experience or learning, physical capacity, our expectations of the nature and duration of the stressor, and our perception of control or helplessness. We take an ‘upstairs/downstairs’ approach: the evaluation happens for sub-threshold stressors are managed ‘upstairs’ in the prefrontal cortex, with the availability of motivation, affect, and cognition to work out how to respond. Once a threshold is reached, the prefrontal cortex is bypassed and sent ‘downstairs’ to brainstem and basal levels for more instinctive, emotional and automatic evaluations.
The fact that basic, high level threat stressors are accommodated at primitive levels of the brain (fight or flight mechanisms) whilst novel, less urgent stressors can be processed at higher levels in the prefrontal cortex (with the implication if evaluation and learning for adaptation) suggests versatility and flexibility of the stress-response system.
This adaptation ensures survival – we err on the side of overreacting to a stressor and respond with fight or flight actions, whilst for less impactful stressors we are set up to learn and adapt. This gives us a chance to use primitive, powerful responses to escape real threat, but to work through and to learn and adapt to other stressors that we encounter.
If stress thresholds are reached individuals will simply react to that stressor with instinctive and primitive responses. In a modern world, stressors that are emotional, social and psychological – and pose no true physical threat – can easily be evaluated as above threshold and reacted to as if they pose a real physical threat, and the physiological effects and ‘fight or flight’ responses invoked.
To add to the issue of stress, we even use our beliefs, expectations and imaginations to set our ‘norms’ by which we judge our performance. Issues like perfectionism emerge that turn a simple performance task into a stressor, as we struggle to reach our ‘imagined’ target for success. The cognitive evaluation can be skewed by social and psychological factors, previous experience, anxiety and imagination. What one person deems as ‘stressful’ may be entirely comfortable for another. What one person perceives as ‘above threshold’ may be completely different to how someone else perceives it.
What are the outcomes of the stress response?
We are so used to describing stress as a ‘negative’ – something that has to be diminished or removed – that often the benefit of being put under stress is overlooked. From the cognitive processing of stressors it is clear that people are designed to be stressed, and it can actually be good for us.
In response to a stressor, there are three key outcomes:
• A ‘fragile’ response, where the stressor provides damage or degradation.
Imagine hitting a dinner plate with a hammer. The stressor hits a fragile target that is damaged or degraded by the response. Also consider how water dripping on a rock creates erosion over time. For people, both acute and chronic stressors can cause damage (think of PTSD in the first case, and ‘burnout’ in the other).
• A ‘resilient’ response, where the stressor is tolerated and the system returns to normal afterward.
Imagine a spring, which absorbs a force and after it has been removed, the spring returns to its original form. This is the ‘normal response’ to stress – people ‘cope’ with it until it passes, then relax back to how they were before.
• An ‘antifragile’ response, where the stressor invokes learning and growth in the person.
Imagine someone starting a new gym program. The time on the treadmill, or the weights they lift, are stressors that develop the muscles and cardiovascular systems to work at new and improved levels under future stress. When stressors are applied we can learn and adapt to them, so that we can evolve more effective and efficient ways of dealing with the stressor if it appears again.
In fact, with circumstances changing in unpredictable ways, organisms that can respond to change stressors with learning and coping are more able to deal with selection pressures and survive. The ability to operate at greater distances from set-points of normal functioning, and even resetting norms of behaviour in response to stressors makes them more appropriately adapted to circumstances of continued change. Therefore the anti-fragile response is the most valuable, evolutionary adaptive response to a stressor. (Note: the anti-fragile concept was first introduced by economist N. Taleb)
Knowing that there are different responses that can be taken to stressors allows us to change the way we manage the stress of modern life.
How can we ‘manage’ stress?
As stress is simply is the internally generated response to the cognitive evaluation of a stressor, against the size and nature of the stressor and the capacity of the individual to cope. There are three potential ways that an individual can ‘manage’ stress:
1. Reduce or modify the stressors that come to bear upon them (changing how the person is exposed to stressors in their environment.)
We are likely to go into overwhelm when the sheer volume of stressors pushes us over our threshold. In that case, we shift from using our logical brain to solve our way forward, to resorting to instinctive flight/fight responses. However, if we can reduce the amount of stress to sub-threshold levels, we can be more able to process the stressors logically, and in an anti-fragile manner. This allows growth and adaptation. Knowing when we are in overwhelm is important, and deciding which stressors to insulate yourself from (as opposed to which ones to tolerate in a resilient manner) is very valuable in managing stress and your response to it.
2. Reinterpret the stressor so that is evaluated differently – especially in ways to shift its evaluation to higher functions (out of primitive fight or flight reflex responses).
Many of the stressors we face are not ‘life or death’ – but we evaluate them that way. Creating the space to evaluate the stressors for what they really are allows us to better assess and manage them. Perhaps the stressor is social, or emotional. It may be related to the internal standards and expectations that we place on ourselves, rather than the true nature of the stressor that we face. If we are a perfectionist, then if we are challenged in trying to achieve a goal, we can misrepresent the stress into a major ‘life threatening’ incident. Reinterpreting stressors allows us to shift gears to focus on the stressors that really need dealing with, and putting the others in proper perspective.
Seeing stressors as opportunities for learning and growth also reframes them into something that is positive and valuable, which is often enough to change the way we feel about them and respond to them in real time.
3. Respond to the stressor in anti-fragile ways – by learning and adapting to the stressor, so that managing it in future becomes a something that is within your comfort zone.
Taking the time to reflect on the stressors that have triggered us allows us the space to learn from our experience of them. As we review the stressors, consider the different responses that we could have employed, we can learn from the experience and create strategies to deal with the stressors better when we meet them in future.
Practical matters of stress management
Research shows enhanced emotional intelligence improves your stress response. In practical terms, this means enhancing how we use self-awareness, self-management, and self-regard. As we stay self-aware, we can monitor how we are responding to our environment (to attend to our level of stress response), and also note the various stressors and responses we take to them,
Self management then adds value as we use what we have learned from the self-awareness, to take the actions to manage ourselves and our perceptions of ourselves in ways to help us through stressful circumstances.
Enhanced self-regard helps us develop a positive self-dialogue, to not be too hard on ourselves (and add additional stressors) and enhance resilience and coping capability.
Taking a break from stressful situations is also an important practical step. Finding time and space to dissociate from stressors allows your physiology to return to more relaxed states. This helps us reset our internal ‘thermometers’ and allows our bodies to take a rest from the stressors. Often people feel a ‘rebound’ effect when they go on holiday after a stressful period, and it can take several days or even a week for people to get back to more restful states. Often people put themselves under stress by thinking about their workplace when they are on holiday, and keep reminding themselves of the stress by checking their emails and looking at their smart phones.
Often it is possible to use relaxation exercises, meditation, hypnosis and exercise as ways of dissociating from the stress. Exercise can be a particularly good alternative – it is positively stressful, and allows the body to make use of the stimulation developed through other stressors to help athletic performance. Depending upon the exercise, it also allows complete distraction from the causes of stress that allow the body to respond and relax after the exercise session. Meditation can be difficult for highly stressed people – they are often simply too stimulated to be able to find the space in their thinking to relax.
The true step to having anti-fragile responses to stressors is to take the time to reflect and learn. Without this, we can only ever be resilient. We can cope with the stress, until it is removed. However, if we can learn to adapt in how we work under that stress, the stress no longer poses a problem and our flexibility and breadth of adaptive skills increased.
Consider what makes you stressed. How can you take the opportunity to develop anti-fragile, learning and growth responses to turn stressors into opportunity to enhance the baseline of your performance?