You’re working on a project when you hit a bump. It is a problem for which there isn’t an obvious solution and it’s going to set you back at least a few hours, maybe more. How do you react?
- Throw in the towel and storm off in a bad mood?
- Put your head in your hands and feel utterly defeated?
- Take a deep breath, a step back, and try to figure out a solution?
Your first reaction is likely to be one or two but the important question is whether you can then move onto three.
Normal, everyday stress is unavoidable. In fact, with no stress in our lives we would likely be under-stimulated and maybe a little bored. There are other times when stress increases to a point at which you start to feel overwhelmed. While we may not be able to control the stressor, we can try to control how we respond to it.
Normal stress can either be viewed as a threat or a challenge. If you view a task as a threat your heart rate and blood pressure will rise, you may feel out of control and have an urge to run away. If you see a task as a challenge instead your heart rate will still rise but your blood pressure will not, you will feel more in control and will likely take more practical steps to find a solution . A simple difference in reframing stress can make a big difference in how it affects you.
For example, researchers gave golf players instructions on how to complete a putting task. They gave half instructions in which the task was framed as a threat and half in which it was framed as a challenge. Those who received the challenge instructions not only landed more puts but also made more efficient muscle movements while completing them . What about non-sports related tasks? Another researcher made people do a set of horrible tasks including making a speech in front of a group, singing karaoke and doing maths problems.
The only difference in participants was whether they had been told to say ‘I am anxious’ or ‘I am excited’ before the tasks. Those who said ‘I am excited’ were better able to do the tasks, felt more confident and viewed them as opportunities not threats. This latter group had reframed the stressful task in front of them and reinterpreted the physical symptoms they were feeling as excitement not anxiety. After all, a pounding heart and butterflies in the stomach are signs of both stress and excitement. The only difference is how you interpret them.
So next time you hit a problem go ahead and throw things, storm out, slam doors and/or have a little cry but don’t let that be your final response. Try to take a break, go back with a fresh head and see this bump as a challenge not a threat.
- Blascovich, J., et al., Predicting athletic performance from cardiovascular indexes of challenge and threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2004. 40(5): p. 683-688.
- Moore, L.J., et al., The effect of challenge and threat states on performance: An examination of potential mechanisms. Psychophysiology, 2012. 49(10): p. 1417-1425.
- Brooks, A.W., Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2014. 143(3): p. 1144.