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Use Stress to Gain an Edge

We’ve been told that stress is bad for us. That’s not entirely true, specifically when it comes to performance.

We’ve all experienced it - butterflies in our stomach, a racing heart, sweaty palms, nervous jitters. Before a big game, test, or interview, our body alerts us to the fact that what we are about to do is really important. It’s a biological process that dates back to our ancient ancestors who needed their bodies to be ready for action in the face of imminent danger.

Commonly referred to as our “fight or flight” response, stressful events trigger a series of bodily functions that are meant to help us prepare when we need to be on our game. But if our natural “fight or flight” response is supposed to help us, then why do we so often struggle under pressure and feel overwhelmed with anxiety?

Today, we are no longer preparing for a showdown with a saber tooth tiger. Our stress is much more mental than physical. That said, our body still reacts as if we are getting ready for battle. Our mind tries to make sense of this mental stress, but often cannot relieve the tension that has no apparent physical threat. And for this reason, many of us feel overwhelmed and anxious when the pressures of our 21st century world build up against us.

Asking that special someone out for the first time? Presenting in front of your class? Comparing yourself too often with others on Instagram? Up at bat in the bottom of the 9th with the game on the line? This is what stress looks like today. If we want to win these moments, we must possess the skills necessary to keep our anxiety at bay.

But is all this stress bad for us? Not at all. In fact, research says we need a certain amount of it to perform our best. There’s one key factor: we need to control it. And when we do, this “intermittent” stress will enhance our performance when we need it the most.

So why do some of us own the pressure moments while others crumble under the bright lights? Studies show that 90% of top performers are skilled at managing their emotions under pressure. They are able to harness the best parts of stress to maximize their performance. When they reach the perfect “stress zone”, their brains are most alert and ready for action. If unchecked, prolonged stress will lead to anxiety and, eventually, disaster come performance time.

What do these top performers do to make sure they keep cool under pressure? Here are seven keys that researchers have found to keep you calm and regulate stress.

They’re grateful for what they have.

Those who make a habit of recognizing and appreciating the blessings in their lives are much better at managing stress than those who do not. We all have problems, some greater than others. Instead of focusing on them, top performers have a positive mindset, which gives them an edge under pressure. So get in the habit of writing down what you are grateful for, everyday.

They don’t compare themselves to others.

Theodore Roosevelt famously stated that comparison is the thief of all joy. The endless scrolling on social media is proven to increase anxiety and depression. Those who are successful at regulating stress focus more on what is within their control - their own emotions and performance - rather than wasting time comparing themselves to others or worrying about what others may think of them.

They unplug. Often.

If we learned anything in the last decade it’s that screen time is terrible for us. Our brains were not wired to be stimulated 24/7/365. Our addiction to smartphones has most Americans battling a constant state of general anxiety, caused by neverending buzzes and flashes that simply exhaust our brains. It’s like never shutting your computer down, eventually it’s sluggish and doesn’t operate as well. People who are skilled at managing stress practice mindfulness. They are deliberate about time spent on devices or in front of screens. They are able to be at peace with their thoughts. Try this: spend 15 minutes in a room by yourself completely silent. No phones, no talking, no reading, no distractions. Sound too easy? Most people cannot do it. Once you improve your mindfulness, you’ll improve your stress management.

They sleep.

According to the CDC, over a third of adults do not get enough sleep and 20% of teenagers get fewer than five hours of sleep per night. On average, Americans are sleeping more than a full hour less than we were fifty years ago. We are dangerously sleep deprived. And sleep deprivation leads to unhealthy bodies and anxious minds. If you want to be healthier and better at regulating stress, get one additional hour of sleep per night. That’s it.

They limit caffeine intake.

Caffeine triggers adrenaline. Adrenaline is the hormone responsible for kick-starting your “fight or flight” response. Since your body is already producing adrenaline when faced with pressure, this unnaturally added dose will put your body into overdrive and make it difficult to keep your stress in the optimal zone for performance.

They see pressure as a privilege and opportunity, not a threat.

What’s the difference between excited and nervous? It’s all in the labeling…

Your perception of an event will reinforce your emotional state. Interpret your racing heart and sweaty palms as nerves? You will likely tighten up under pressure and fail to perform your best. Label those natural bodily reactions as excitement and readiness? You are much more likely to take control of your stress and keep it in the optimal zone. Reinforce the belief that pressure is a privilege, not a threat. It’s an opportunity to showcase your skills and grow, regardless of outcome. Focus less on the end-results or worse-case scenarios and more on remaining in the present moment. Learn to embrace pressure and watch as your performance soars in the biggest moments.

They are perfectly alert for the task at hand.

When I first learned about intermittent stress, it immediately reminded me of something I learned in college psychology: The Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal. Developed in 1908, these researchers found that different tasks require different levels of arousal, or alertness, for optimal performance. Difficult, complex, and intellectually demanding tasks require calmness, which facilitates concentration. Simple tasks that require more stamina or persistance are performed better at higher arousal levels, which increases motivation.

Put simply, would a golfer standing over a 6-foot putt to win a tournament benefit from the same level of arousal as a Linebacker about to charge the field before a championship game? I don’t think so. Although both are athletes in pressure moments, these tasks are very different. One requires steadiness and calmness, while the other requires ferocity and passion. The great ones are able to find that sweet spot, matching the perfect amount of arousal to optimize their performance.

They breathe. With intention.

Breathing has so many health benefits,

however, we rarely focus on it. Intentional breathing can help us gain control of our emotions and improve our performance in pressure situations. One method to try is square breathing, which shifts your energy, calms your nervous system, and decreases stress in your body. Also known as box breathing, begin by slowly exhaling all of your air out. Then, gently inhale through your nose to a slow count of 4. Hold at the top of the breath for a count of 4. Then gently exhale through your mouth for a count of 4. At the bottom of the breath, pause and hold for the count of 4. This image gives a good visual of how square breathing works.

Practice these eight strategies regularly to take control of your stress and perform your best under pressure. Mastery won’t come overnight, but with persistence you will begin to feel healthier, happier, and more positive, especially when faced with stressful events in your life. Learn to embrace “intermittent” stress and enjoy dominating your performance when it matters most.

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