Your heart is racing, you breathe faster, you are starting to break a sweat, your pupils dilate, you are very sensitive to all the outside stimuli. Stress! You are stressed and you probably view those signals as threatening. Why is that so? Because we are programmed to view stress as harmful. For decades the health psychologists have blamed stress for everything from cardiovascular diseases to common cold. We have created a monster. Yes, long lasting severe stress can be and is harmful. The truth is we have started to view every reaction of are body as harmful, whereas the truth is it is the reaction that is helping us COPE with the situation.
I had this truly eye opening experience when I first saw Kelly McGonigal’s talk at TED. She is a health psychologist who made a bold confession on that TED stage. She said that what she had been teaching about stress for the 10 years before was wrong. And she shared the study that changed her mind. It turns out that it is not the stress itself that is so harmful but thinking that stress is harmful is harmful! Imagine, our own convictions are far more dangerous than the reality is. You should most definitely watch this inspiring presentation but most of all you should practice what Kelly preaches.
The major takeaways from the Kelly’s TED talk are two:
- when you experience signals from your body, do not interpret them as hostile and a sign you are not coping. Instead view them as helpful and a sign that your body is preparing you to deal with the pressure. That you can rise to this challenge.
- when in stress, reach out to others. Talk to people, mingle. Before you enter the stage or the meeting have a small talk with the target audience members. This will result not only in stress reduction and the possible release of oxytocin to your system. It also helps you be more persuasive.
Whenever I feel stressed prior to major events I talk to people from the audience. Then I find them and mindfully talk to them. It changes everything.
Observing stress from a very different perspective can alter not only the effect it has on your cardiovascular system in long term. It can also help you fight overall stress and perform better. The key is however not thinking too much. It is about experiencing the moment and being mindful. People are usually stressed and fail to deliver if they focus too much on the outside. They think: I must get this investment; I must win this competition (especially when I’m in the finals); I must sell this product; I must give the smashing presentation and have audience fall in love.
This mindset and this motivation that is driven by outside goals and not focused on behaviour can lead to failure. Why? Because we stop focusing on behaviour (or performance in the time) and start focusing on the outside (that usually we cannot control. I will say it again, WE focus on what we cannot control (the outside, the outcome) and forget to focus on what we can control (our behaviour, thoughts and performance).
Stress is inevitable. But its negative consequences surely are! The first thing you might want to do is give stress meaning. If you divorce it from meaning it becomes unbearable! When you actually realise why you are stressed and what is the meaning behind a stressful situation, then you performance can be largely enhanced. What does it mean to give stress meaning? Well, think about the possible positive outcomes of a stressful situation. When you give presentation you are stressed because your great performance can lead to great sale. When you are stressed before the job interview it is because it leads to great career advancement. Find meaning behind stress. View the signals as the ones that help you get there and don’t overthink. You’ll be all right!