A few years ago, I interviewed Formula 1 driver Mika Häkkinen while writing a book about sustainable high performance. I was intrigued to learn more about how he performed under pressure. Mika recounted an experience before a particularly wet edition of the Adelaide GP. He recalled looking out his hotel window on the morning of the race, watching sheets of rain lashing the buildings outside. Many drivers would have been discouraged, but Mika had a different mindset:
“I told myself & the team, ‘I’m so happy it’s raining; this is fantastic!”
However, it wasn’t this part of the story that was most memorable. Later, he went on to describe a moment from the race.
“I was approaching 300km/hr, and visibility was zero. I had to guess the distance to the turn, which meant keeping my steering straight and counting up to the turn.”
I can barely imagine what it was like to drive flat out, vision entirely obscured by the rain on the helmet visor, relying on counting in your head to judge the track position, then trusting that you got the timing correct so you could take the corner before careering off into the barriers…
Our conversation sparked my interest in the idea that we can change our ‘stress mindset’. Experiencing stress is a normal part of being human, but can we change our ‘stress mindset’ and even improve our performance in response to stress?
What is stress?
In one sense, stress is simply our response when we experience some form of challenge or demand. Whether the stress is physical or psychological, heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure increase, and mental alertness are enhanced.
Stress is not always a ‘bad thing’. It would actually be counter-productive to remove all stress from our lives. ‘Positive stress’ can motivate us, focus our energy, feel excited and improve performance, provided we feel that the demands being made of us are within our coping abilities.
Problems arise when we perceive challenges as being beyond our capabilities. This can lead to ‘negative stress’, anxiety or concern, unpleasant feelings and impaired performance. If we don’t manage it, negative stress can persist for extended periods.
How can we learn to manage stress?
In many ways, sport is the ultimate testing ground for ‘stress management’. Every training session and competition is a ‘stressor’; even the most successful athletes will lose many more times than they win, resulting in continuous ‘micro-doses of failure’.
In the immediate aftermath of stress, performance is decreased, but, providing sufficient resources are available, the body recovers, and performance bounces back. We often talk about this ‘bouncing back’ as the critical characteristic of resilient individuals.
Humans can adapt to stress and achieve levels of performance even higher than before. We call this process ‘super-compensation’ in sports, but its principle holds in many spheres of life.
The evidence in the scientific literature is compelling. Even in the most demanding situations, individuals with a clear sense of purpose, those who feel engaged and present in their daily life, people who enjoy what they do, have meaningful relationships and find a sense of measurable accomplishment in their work can achieve this ‘super-compensation’ in response to stress (1).
In fact, in a military context, researchers have identified that it’s possible for soldiers who exhibit these characteristics to experience ‘post-traumatic growth’ following even the most stressful experiences (2). Resilience and our capacity to recover and grow in response to stressful situations can be trained and improved.
Change your stress mindset
In a three-part study, researchers demonstrated that people with a more positive view of stress are more likely to respond positively to it. (3). Part 1 of the study involved validating a test designed to help the researchers understand the study subject’s mindset about stress. Specifically, the researchers identified two stress mindsets. The first mindset was characterised by people who believed that stress positively affected their performance. The second mindset was characterised by people who believed that stress has a negative effect.
In the second part of the study, the researchers demonstrated that changing the subject’s stress mindset was possible simply by watching a series of short educational videos.
Some videos suggested that stress is performance-enhancing, while others indicated that stress is debilitating.
Changing your stress mindset could make stress less harmful
In the final part of the study, the researchers described the physiological and behavioural impact of these two stress mindsets. Subjects who believed that stress is performance-enhancing exhibited moderate cortisol reactivity (the ‘stress hormone) and actively sought detailed feedback after their performance (a public speaking exercise). The three parts of the study illustrate that our stress mindset is a useful determinant of our likely response to stress and that perceiving stress as a challenge rather than a threat is more likely to result in physiological responses that improve thinking and cause less physical damage.
Investing our energy in searching for ways to reduce stress can be tempting. In some ways, this approach makes sense. However, it’s impossible to eliminate all stress from our lives, so we should be challenged and encouraged to change our view of stress, bounce back stronger when we experience stressful circumstances and even use stress to enhance our performance.
Could changing our stress mindset work in a workplace context?
Over the years, I’ve invested a lot of time and effort in developing my communication skills, and I continue to. Consequently, I was interested to read the results of another study which examined the effect of a very common piece of advice many of us have received before stepping onto the stage.
“Just try to keep calm”.
The advice is well-intentioned, but has it ever worked for you? It often doesn’t help.
Instead of trying to calm down, teaching participants to reappraise their anxiety as excitement led them to adopt an opportunity mindset (as opposed to a threat mindset) and improved their performance (4). When participants adopted an ‘excitement’ approach, their communication was rated as more:
What can we do to put these ideas into practice?
- Remember that resilience and our capacity to recover and grow in response to stressful situations can be trained and improved.
- Invest in relationships with people who can support and help you to grow through stressful experiences.
- Experiment with reframing the stressful experience as a challenge and learning experience. For example, Next time you prepare to perform, pay attention to how you are feeling and your ‘self-talk’. If you notice that you are feeling nervous, try shifting your inner narrative by saying, “I am excited” out loud.
- And next time you experience stress, remember that it’s a normal part of being human.
1) Srivastava, K. (2011) Positive mental health and its relationship with resilience. Ind Psychiatry J. 20(2). p. 75–76.
2) Reivich KJ, Seligman ME, McBride S. (2011) Master resilience training in the U.S. Army. Am Psychol. 66. p. 25–34.
3) Crum A.J, Salovey P, Achor S. (2013) Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. p. 716-733
4) Brooks AW. Get excited: reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2014 Jun;143(3):1144-58