Stress has a bad reputation. Most of the time it is seen as a health-destroying, confidence-busting exhausting ordeal best avoided at all costs. But this isn’t entirely fair. Stress can also make us stronger, smarter and better able to face the challenges that life throws at us. So when is stress the bad guy and how does it become the hero? This is the subject of The Stress Test, a book outlining the good and bad of stress by Professor Ian Robertson, psychologist at Trinity College Dublin and chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of Galvanic, creators of the Pip .
Like many things in life there is a happy medium, or a ‘Goldilocks’ zone of stress. Too much stress or too little is bad for us but just the right amount can push us into our own personal ‘sweet spot’ at which we perform at our optimal level.
Stress is personal. What you find stressful may not be what your friend finds stressful and vice versa. The same applies to the ‘sweet spot’, everyone’s level is different. What seems to be the key difference in good stress and bad stress is how you frame it. Professor Robertson shows that people who have coped with adversity in the past tend to be more resilient to stress in the future. Learning that you can cope with and survive something, and developing the tools to do so, leaves you better able to face challenges in the future. ‘Challenge’ is also a key word when it comes to framing stress. Professor Robertson cites a number of studies that illustrate how we interpret a stressful event can determine whether it will help or harm us.
For example, one research team recruited people to make a speech before an audience. They told half the group to quell their anxiety and to ignore their sweaty palms and shaking muscles by telling themselves ‘I am calm’. The other half of the group were told to reframe the physical sensations they were feeling and tell themselves ‘I am excited.’ This second group were rated as being more persuasive, competent and confident than the first group . This is because they reframed a stressful event as a challenge rather than a threat which pushed them back down the stress curve to their personal stress ‘sweet spot.’
Stress is unavoidable but you can harness the power of it to help you achieve what you want. The key to this is finding the sweet spot. Some challenge is good pushing you from ‘too low’ stress to ‘just right’. Too much anxiety, however, can push you to the other ‘too high’ side of the curve. Learning when to reframe stress as a challenge to get you through the task ahead and, equally importantly, when to take a step back to refocus, calm down and recharge the batteries are important tools in learning how to take control of stress rather than letting it take control of you.
- Ian Robertson (2016) The Stress Test. Bloomsbury (London: UK).
- Brooks, A. W. (2014). Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1144.