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Harnessing Stress for Better and Happier Performance

Dr. Ian Robertson, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute and T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Scientist at Center for BrainHealth.

One Monday morning at work last year, I noticed my heart was beating fast, my mouth was dry, and my stomach was churning. What emotion was I experiencing? Stress? Wrong.  Anxiety? Not quite. No, my football team had just won their game. I was excited, not anxious. But here is the conundrum: How can we have exactly the same symptoms for two opposite emotions? The answer is that these symptoms are to prepare us for action. And while that action can involve avoiding a threat or running away from danger — it can equally be an action preparing us to face a challenge, anticipate a victory, celebrate, and so on.
What we usually call ‘stress,’ then, is actually a form of energy. And like all energy, it can be harnessed for good or ill. Too little of this energy, and we under-perform, but too much can also interfere with how we perform. There is a sweet spot in the middle where this energy actually makes our brains perform better. This happens because of its effects on the brain’s chemical messenger norepinephrine — the key neurotransmitter in the stress response.
Crucial to interpreting energy is one’s mindset — in other words, how you perceive the situation and your body’s response to it. If you can force yourself to see the demands made of you as a challenge rather than as a threat, then you are likely to actually perform better. This response, in turn, can turn your negative, anxious emotions into more positive, excitement-filled emotions. Seeing the demands made on you as a challenge actually pulls your stress/excitement energy levels closer to their sweet spot, resulting in a virtuous circle of improving performance that boosts confidence, lifts mood, and can turn anxiety into excitement.
Stress Management Techniques
Imagine a stressful situation you will face in the next month — like an important meeting or presentation, or a difficult conversation. Close your eyes and try to create the symptoms of a racing heart and tight stomach that you anticipate having immediately before the event. Now try these tips while you feel the symptoms: Tip One: Breathe Take a slower-than-usual breath in and count to five and exhale as you count to five. Do this once more. You should notice that you feel slightly different — calmer. This is because your breathing directly affects the part of your brain that produces norepinephrine. By slowing your breathing, you immediately and directly reduce the norepinephrine levels and hence the level of symptoms. Tip Two: Set the agenda Is there something about the stressful event that you can reframe as a challenge? For example, you may still fear a bad outcome, but can you set a challenge for yourself in how you will behave at the event. For example, can you challenge yourself to speak calmly and professionally even in the face of provocation or criticism? Remember YOU can set the goals that determine whether you experience a sense of success or failure. By setting the agenda for yourself, you can create a challenge mindset and experience the benefits on your brain’s stress response. Tip Three: Exude confidence Square your shoulders and lift your head – taking a confident posture makes you feel more confident. Tip Four: Squeeze yourself Lightly squeeze your right hand – 30 to 40 seconds on, then relax, then repeat. Research shows that this actually boosts confidence and lifts mood by increasing activity in brain regions linked to positive mood. To best prepare yourself for stressful situations, practice putting yourself into this anxious state in your mind’s eye, and implement some — or all — of these tips. Do this at least 10 times before the event, and see if you notice a change in yourself and how you react.
Dr. Ian Robertson is a world-renowned neuropsychologist and co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute who serves as the T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Scientist at the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas. He has spent the last four decades delving into the brain science behind stress. He recently wrote, The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharpera study of why we react to pressure in the way we do and how to be energized rather than defeated by stress. Dr. Robertson has published more than 200 books and articles on the subject of behavior change, brain plasticity, brain health, aging and Alzheimer’s disease. He is also author of The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, a look at the science behind success and failure. Dr. Robertson currently lives in Dublin, Ireland, and was born and educated in Scotland.  

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