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Embrace the stress and pressure … it’s actually good for you

Stress can make us stronger, smarter and happier – if we learn how to open our minds to it

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I’m a Kiwi.  No, not the fruit, a New Zealander.  We play rugby. A game where 30 menacing men lay into each other for a non-stop, heart pounding 80 minutes of sprinting, tackling, body slamming, elite athleticism.  Where players come out bloodied, gloriously victorious or beaten.  

In fact we’re awesomely good at it.  We won the Rugby World Cup in 2011 and 2015.  Sadly we have not been victorious in 2019, but this is not a tale of rugby prowess, rather it’s about embracing pressure to win.

Conventional wisdom tells us stress and pressure is bad for us, it can be deadly and we must do everything we can to avoid it.  It’s seen as bad not solely because of the physiological impacts but because of the coping mechanisms used to deal with it.  Thinking of stress as harmful leads us to use less helpful ways to deal with it.  Getting drunk to “release” stress, procrastinating to avoid stress, or imagining worst-case scenarios.  Or if you’re really going to town, it’s doing all three at once.

In sport, as in life, there is a strong correlation between pressure and performance; as pressure increases, performance decreases. To change that post-2007 the All Blacks (our national team) brought in sports psychologists and implemented programmes to change how they responded to pressure.  Rather than being avoided, the All Blacks would practice techniques to embrace pressure. They would acknowledge it and walk towards it.

These tools and practices are not solely for elite athletes.  We can all master them to become mentally stronger.  Whether you’re a businessperson, a student, or a stay at home parent, we can learn the tools to feel comfortable in the pressure moments. 

Most people have the will to win. Few have the will to prepare to win.

Unfortunately our inclination is to want less of the tough and uncomfortable moments, which is why most of us remain stuck.

What do we do when we want to get mentally stronger?  We learn and prepare, so rather than be overwhelmed, we can step back and get control, because without control there is no choice. When we’ve gained emotional control and clarity, the crucial next step is to seize the initiative and take effective action to get to the next level.  

Counterintuitively the starting point is to visualise scenarios of things going wrong.  This is the biggest test on resilience and the quality of our skills.  But often people start with positive thinking, “imagine everything going right and you win”.

“We looked at all the things that could go wrong and what the mental response would be. How would you get your attention back? How would you adapt your strategy? How would you continue to execute your skills? One of the biggest risks to mentality is getting caught up in things you can’t control,” says CEO of Gazing Performance Systems Martin Fairn. “So we get people to write down and recognise what they can and can’t control and what they can influence.”

One way to find good in the stress in our lives is to view it as an opportunity to learn and grow. The ability to learn from stress is built into the basic biology of the stress response. For several hours after we have a strong stress response, the brain is rewiring itself to remember and learn from the experience. Stress leaves an imprint on our brain that prepares us to handle similar stress the next time you encounter it. Psychologists call the process of learning and growing from a difficult experience “stress inoculation”. Going through the experience gives your brain and body a stress vaccine.

This is why learning through practice stress is a key training technique for NASA astronauts, emergency responders, elite athletes like the All Blacks and for you and me. 

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