No one likes being stressed, and in the build-up to an exam, a driving test or even a blind date, most people will talk about how much they hate being stressed or how it’s making them lose sleep. Stress can even lead to health problems, as it puts your body in an excited state that features a heightened heart rate and blood pressure and a lowered immune system. When you’re stressed you’re more likely to make mistakes, to fall ill and to feel tired and depressed. You might start to think that we’d all be a bit better off if we could just eliminate stress completely from our lives…
Before you get carried away though, it’s important to recognize some of the great merits of stress and how it can actually help us to get more out of our lives and avoid problems. There are actually many ways that stress can help us, it’s just a matter of knowing how to manage it and keeping it in check (everything in moderation as they say… ). Here we will look at why stress can be helpful, and how to make it work for you.
Pride Before a Fall
If you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘pride comes before a fall’ then you’ll be familiar with how we can become complacent when we’re not challenged. Jackie Chan summarises this perfectly when he explains that he never injures himself during a ‘big stunt’ – only ever the smaller ones that are practically routine for him.
Several studies meanwhile have looked at the effects of visualisation and whether or not it can help us to live our dreams and achieve our goals. If you are to believe countless self-help books, then simply visualising yourself in a mansion with a hot girlfriend having accomplished all your goals can help you to succeed in your career and personal life. In reality though the research points to the exact opposite – those who visualise themselves being successful and fantasise often will actually be less likely to achieve their goals. And the reason may well be that visualising success makes it seem too easy and too much of a ‘sure thing’.
The problem is, that when we have no stress at all surrounding something, we tend to get complacent and stop thinking about what can go wrong. This then leads us to make mistakes, and to avoid putting in the work and the time necessary to secure victory. While fantasising about success might be fun then, making realistic plans and targets is much more useful and yields far superior results.
The other useful thing about stress is that it helps to improve motivation and stimulates us to work harder. If you had no stress at all leading up to an exam then you wouldn’t do any research and you might even turn up late. While too much stress can be paralysing and even make you unwell, if you have just the right amount of stress then it will spur you on to work hard and to achieve your aims.
So how can you make stress work for you as a motivating factor? Well one example is using the ‘Zeigarnik effect’. This was first observed in the catering industry where it was noticed that waiters would be likely to recall a table’s orders accurately right up to the point where the customers paid the bill. This is because the act of paying the bill gave the transaction a kind of ‘closure’ in turn allowing the waiters to forget about the order entirely. While the order was still open the waiters would feel a kind of ‘anxiety’ that would help them to recall the details. Likewise, interrupting someone in the middle of any task will make them more likely to recall the details of that task than if they finish.
This could theoretically be used to enhance memory, but the use that’s most often suggested is devised to combat procrastination. The idea is to start work on your project no matter how little you do – because even if you do just two minutes you’ll find that it’s then at the forefront of your mind and you’ll want to do anything to stop putting it off. If you can come up with a way to force those first two minutes of work, then you’ll find it’s very useful (try sitting up in bed and doing two minutes of work on your laptop as you come round).
The original use of stress is to help improve our physical performance. In the wild ‘stress’ would exist only in the form of the ‘fight or flight’ response and would be in response to real threats to our safety and wellbeing. This then results in the release of adrenaline that helps us to run faster and for longer, to be more aware of our surroundings and to heighten our reflexes.
No doubt in sports this is a very useful set of skills to acquire, so a little stress in the form of competitiveness or genuine concern at failure might be useful. Things like heightened awareness could also be useful for more every-day tasks, such as driving or such as doing certain types of work (particularly manual labour). You might find then that you can actually enhance your productivity and performance by making your task more difficult and by increasing the stakes so that there are greater repercussions for failure. When I was learning to do backflips I actually overcame the fear of falling on my head (a mostly unfounded concern) by getting a friend to promise to do something worse if I didn’t manage it.
Managing and Controlling Stress
A little stress when engaging in dangerous physical labour is a good thing then, but lots of stress when you’re giving a speech is what’s responsible for most of us rushing through our scripts, stuttering or completely choking and forgetting our lines.
As such then, stress is only useful if we are able to control it and to decide when and to what degree we’re going to experience it. With that in mind, you should look into using cognitive restructuring and affirmations to both trigger and reduce stress. In other words, you can tell yourself the stakes are terrible and focus on the negatives if you want to increase stress, or you can tell yourself there’s ‘no point in worrying’ and focus on positives if you want to reduce it.
Likewise you can also ‘prime’ your mood in any way you want to by going straight from one task to another. For instance, if you want to experience greater stress during a task then you can try doing something to raise your heartbeat (such as balancing on a railing) first. Likewise to go into something with less stress you might spend the time beforehand relaxing and watching a funny movie.
Stress can be a dangerous and highly upsetting feeling, but like every aspect of the human experience it’s there for a reason. Learn to make it work for you and it can become a great asset.