Why stress about stress?

By Carolyn Sohmer


As Julie demonstrated in her last post, stress, for most people, has very negative connotations.

Let me tell you why, on the contrary, I thrive on stress. Be it in putting out fires, riding deadlines, or simply keeping a full to-do list, my best work is done under pressure. I cannot argue with the fact that stress is a negative experience for most people. I also cannot claim that I don't struggle with it, too, sometimes. You know, that climbing sensation of overwhelming dread and burden that makes it easier to do nothing than to face the mere fraction of productivity you actually feel capable of achieving? It's real. But it doesn't always have to be.

The physiological experience that is interpreted as stress (increased skin temperature, heart racing, blood pressure rising, etc.) is not, in itself, negative. Evolutionarily speaking (think adrenaline and "fight or flight"), our bodies' stress responses exist to help us when it counts.

The way I see it, you can interpret these physiological symptoms in three ways:


1. Boiling frustration/anxiety

I.e., you are so overwhelmed with emotions and don't know where or how to direct your energy.


2. Crippling defeat

I.e., you think, "It's just too much, man" and shut down or engage in other tasks (like randomly cleaning your whole house or making unwarranted trips to the fridge) that do not address your current priorities.


3. Adaptive adrenaline

I.e., you realize that your body is on your side, trying to catapult you to the finish line, and you decide to ride that wave of energy.

If you embrace stress as a performance-enhancing adrenaline rush, that is exactly what it will be.

By shifting our interpretation of stress from one of hair-pulling and coffee-zombies to one of adaptive adrenaline, the experience of bodily stress responses can actually improve how well we perform. For example, a person giving an important speech who is aware of the positive, evolutionary reasons for his sweaty palms and reddening cheeks will likely perform better than he would if, a) he was unaware of his adaptive adrenaline, or b) he was not experiencing any physiological stress. The bottom line is that stress (the right kind, at least) is more conducive to success than is the absence of stress.

All of this is to say, if you walk into a stress-inducing situation such as an exam, presentation, or interview, remember that stress is what you make it. If you think, "I'm doomed" and allow your heartbeat to infiltrate your internal monologue... well, don't.

We've all been there. But my guess is that we've all also been in situations wherein we accepted positive interpretations of physiological stress responses (perhaps the adrenaline rush of boarding a daunting roller-coaster or of a first kiss).

Step #1 to loving your stress is blurring the lines between awesome roller-coaster and "I-don't-even-know-how-to-start" work endeavors. Recognize your body's cues that it knows what's up, that you need to prepare for something important. Your body just wants to get you pumped. If you embrace stress as a performance-enhancing adrenaline rush, that is exactly what it will be.


Posted on January 18, 2016 and filed under Personal, Tips & Tools.