Have you ever missed the last bus or train home? You might have felt panicky, scared and flustered, telling yourself ‘everything’s gone wrong’: or, you might have calmly started to think through possible solutions. Or, has your boss / teacher ever told you that you need to do a presentation to lots of people – tomorrow! Did you immediately start to run around like a headless chicken? Or did you decide you’d do your best and it’d be good enough? We are faced every day with events that we need to respond to, and choices about how to respond.
Is stress good for us?
Clients often ask me ‘Isn’t a bit of stress good for us?’ or ‘Don’t we need some adrenaline to get us going? I’d never get anything done otherwise’. And it’s true that a state of deep relaxation and calm – while lovely to experience – is not going to be the best state to be in when responding to situations like these. But what do we actually mean when we talk about stress or adrenaline? There is a lot of confusion that goes on here, because there are actually TWO states involved.
What many people refer to as ‘stress’ is that state where you feel threatened by a situation: the result is often feeling rushed, snappy, not able to think straight, not sleeping … Sound familiar? Ironically, being in this state does nothing to help us resolve a problem or be at our best!
But there is another much more useful option, a motivated ‘rising to the challenge’ state. And this is the one that enhances our performance, and enables us to think clearly and problem solve.
The key to which state we are in seems to lie in how we THINK about the situation, whether we see it as a threat or a challenge. This makes all the difference to how we respond and the results we achieve, but interestingly it also makes a difference to what goes on in the cells of our body.
So how do we know whether we are in the challenge state or the threat state? Here are a few pointers.
The threat state involves:
· Focusing on the negative.
· Imagining and fearing the worst that could happen.
· Feeling like you can’t do anything about it.
· This actually means that your performance gets worse just when you want to be at your best.
The challenge state involves:
· Believing you will be able to find a way through.
· Being curious: ‘How will I resolve this?’.
· Then looking for solutions and opportunities, focusing on what you want.
· You have calm energy, focus and concentration, so you are at your best.
The science bit
Interestingly (if you like science!) there is some new scientific evidence to show that your body produces different hormones depending on whether you think there is a challenge or a threat. In both, your heart rate increases, but in the challenge state adrenaline is produced, which expands your blood vessels to accommodate the extra blood; so your blood pressure does not go up. When you think you are being threatened, this sends different messages to your body, cortisol is the main hormone produced, and adrenaline production is actually inhibited. Without the adrenaline your blood vessels do not expand, and your blood pressure rises. Cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) is known to be involved in a range of health problems, especially when it is around long term.
All of this is your body responding to what you think about what happens to you!