The Positive Side of Stress

One of my favorite Ted talks of all time is by Kelly McGonigal.

She takes a unique view on stress, and it has completely changed the way I think under pressure.

I grew up thinking that stress was evil. That it was something to avoid at all cost.

And to some extent, that’s true. Chronic stress has been linked to high blood pressure, among many other health concerns.

Yet something Dr. McGonigal pointed out really stuck to me. She made a clear distinction about what it is about stress that seems to be the real root of the problems that accompany it. And surprisingly, it isn’t the presence of the stress itself.

It’s the way we view the stress.

This was incredible to me. The idea that I could change the way my body responds under pressure simply by changing my thoughts was fascinating.

So I did some experimenting.

At the time, I was in the middle of a summer internship that I really disliked. It was boring, and the select few times when I had enough work to keep me busy were absolute chaos. I would have more work coming my way than I could possibly manage. And to that point I had let these situations get the best of me.

But once I changed the way I thought in these situations, I noticed a drastic change.

The next time an onslaught of work came my way, I took a breath and thought back to this Ted Talk. I tried to focus on the benefits of my body’s reaction under pressure, rather than the downside.

I paid attention to my heart rate and breathing as they quickened. I felt my pupils dilate, and the tunnel vision kick in.

And I used it all to my advantage.

Rather than trying to fight my body’s response, I embraced it. Instead of accepting the adrenaline boost as a hindrance, I viewed it like a superpower preparing me to excel at the task at hand.

I flew through the work quicker than I ever had before, and oddly enough I actually started to enjoy it. I learned to love that intense environment where I could get fired up and put out my best work, and I started looking for other ways to put this new-found mindset to the test.

The next obvious application was athletics. Sports push you to they limits. They demand your best performance in the biggest moments.

So of course, these situations come with a lot of stress.

There are two types of responses during the biggest moments: most players fold under the pressure, but the specials ones actually elevate their play to the next level.

I’ve written before about the key role that experience plays in these situations. But the player’s mindset is just as critical. From across the field you can tell which players feed off the energy in big games, and which ones can’t handle it. 

The best players live for the big moments. They thrive off of the electricity in the air during rivalry games, and they’re energized by the tension at the end of the game.

And they put their body’s natural responses to work. They take advantage of the increased focus and physical output that comes under stress.

The fight or flight response was developed for a reason. It’s there to help us perform when we’re in need. Sure, we’re rarely placed in true life or death situations anymore, but your body doesn’t know the difference. It responds to a big test just as it would if you were being chased by a Tiger.

So rather than fighting these instincts, try to use them to your advantage.

Think about how the adrenaline pumping through your veins is preparing your body to perform.

And enjoy.