Brad Stulberg, coauthor of “Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success,” explains how looking at stressful situations as challenges rather than threats can help you perform better. Following is a transcript of the video.
So stress, in a very biological sense is simply a stimulus. So that stimulus can be a workout — I’m stressing my bicep muscle. That stimulus can be a performance review with my boss — I’m extremely anxious, that has stimulated my physiology. So the stress response is rooted in this physiological system called “fight or flight,” and what happens is when we are hit with some kind of stimulus, we become aroused. So that might mean that our heart rate rises, we might feel butterflies in our stomach, our core temperature increases, these types of things.
What researchers have found is that those physiological sensations are often just neutral. Stress only becomes negative when we label those things as negative. So one of my favourite examples from researching this book is the stress or anxiety one might feel before public speaking. What researches have found is that before public speaking, individuals, they start to feel, again, those sensations that I mentioned. Conventional wisdom is you want to take a few deep breaths to calm down, but unless you’re trained in breath control, what often happens is people take deep breaths and they don’t calm down. And then the situation only gets worse because now they have labelled those emotions as bad — I need to calm down, something’s wrong — and they try to calm down, and they don’t calm down. And then they go on the stage and they stutter and often have a terrible experience.
So what the latest science shows is that you can reframe those sensations as excitement. And instead of telling yourself, “I need to calm down because I’m stressed,” you say, “I’m excited. This is my body getting ready to give it its best. These are my perceptions being heightened.” And just that little subtle shift in mindset had an enormous impact on how public speakers performed and also how they subjectively felt. They felt much better on the stage.
So in the acute sense, reframing stress as something that’s positive can be very beneficial. In the long-term sense, researchers come to a very similar conclusion, which is individuals that see trying times as challenges rather than threats, and encode stress as something that is a stimulus that will help them eventually grow because they will overcome it, they tend to perform better. And not only do they tend to perform better, they also have better health and even live longer.
So I think a big, big takeaway is that most cases in the modern world of stress are actually labels that we’re applying to sensations that might not be all that stressful.
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