There are endless techniques for dealing with stress, from weight lifting to meditation, because stress is generally seen as a bad thing. Nobody wants to go through life feeling strained, exhausted, and nervous.
But if you try avoiding stress entirely, you could be putting your professional life into a state of stagnation. If you can figure out how to gain control over your anxiety, you can use it for motivation.
Stone takes a look Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of “flow” in relation to work satisfaction.
Csikszentmihalyi says that when challenges exceed our skills, we feel anxiety; when our skills exceed challenges, we feel boredom.
He says there is a “flow channel” of growth for optimum satisfaction and productivity, where we don’t feel either too anxious to get anything done or too bored to do anything meaningful.
Stone then details acclaimed video game designer Jesse Schell’s interpretation of this theory, as outlined in his book “The Art of Game Design.”
Schell argues that there are only two ways to advance in your career.
In “boredom-driven growth,” you develop skills by taking on moderately difficult tasks. When this level of challenge becomes boring, you then move onto another level of difficulty, and the process repeats.
In “anxiety-driven growth,” you take on a challenge that requires a skill set beyond what you already possess. These unknowns create anxiety, which in turn compels you to develop the skills necessary to complete the task.
Both approaches bring you to the same point, but anxiety-driven growth gets you there faster, according to Schell.
Of course, Stone says, everyone needs to take time to unwind on occasion, and it is not productive to take on a challenge so far outside of your capabilities that you become overwhelmed and crippled by doubt. But if you try to be a perfectionist, you’re on a slow path to realising your potential.
“So avoid the temptation to master all the skills you need before taking on a challenge. Whenever you can, as long as the water’s not too far over your head, just jump in, and figure it out as you go,” Stone says.
Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal has also spoken about the benefits of stress. In a popular TED Talk, she explains that the body has a natural way of keeping stress from becoming harmful.
She points to research that shows that stress is a natural reaction to adversity, and that when it quickens our heart rate and improves our focus, it is giving us an advantage in overcoming a challenge. There is nothing inherently dangerous about that reaction for a normal person, but when somebody considers it unhealthy, the body tenses and blood vessels restrict — which can lead to heart and blood pressure issues.
Essentially, thinking that stress is harmful makes it harmful; thinking that stress is helpful makes it helpful.
McGonigal also points out that the anti-inflammatory hormone oxytocin is released during times of stress, and it compels us to seek interactions with others. That means that having positive personal relationships in anxiety-inducing periods actually helps your body keep blood vessels from constricting, and studies support this.
So, if you can take a positive view of stress and throw yourself into challenges outside your comfort zone, you can jumpstart your productivity and not have to worry about negative side-effects.
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