“Athletes need to think of stress as helping them get ready to perform. Instead of trying to make the butterflies go away, athletes need to make those butterflies line up and fly in formation.”—Jim Afremow, sports psychologist
April 7th was World Health Day. What better time to make your stress line up and fly in formation so you can perform at your optimal level? The worse thing you can do is try to get rid of your stress. How many times have you had that sinking feeling that your heart is about to jump out of your chest before a presentation to coworkers or facing a team member over a disagreement? Sometimes stress feels like one of those cruel ghosts that haunts you day and night, stalking you on a pressure-cooker day, lurking over your shoulder while you’re pitching ideas to your team or stretching dollars to make ends meet. If you’re like most people, you might think of stress as an enemy infiltrator. You ignore it, battle it or try to extinguish it. But it’s it’s your best friend, and it’s actually good medicine. If you harness it and use it in a constructive way, it can fuel your career.
Stress Has Gotten A Bum Rap
In some ways, stress has gotten a bum rap, but it’s not all bad. In fact, a little stress is a good thing—so common that scientist Hans Selye gave it the name eustress in the 1930s. Eustress is the kind of stress that gets you motivated and lets you know you’re fully involved in your life. It helped Simone Biles and Michael Phelps win Olympic gold, Meryl Streep snag her string of Oscars, and quarterback Tom Brady win his Super Bowl titles.
Your brain is wired for stress to protect and keep you safe. Like the kick-butt drill sergeant in boot camp who doesn’t want you to get your head blown off in combat, stress warns you of threats and motivates you to stay on course to do the right thing. It keeps you from making a fool of yourself in front of your peers, exposing yourself to ridicule or embarrassment. If stress didn’t keep you on your toes, you might not be as successful in your job, your relationships could crumble, you’d be more susceptible to danger and your life could fall apart.
When you’re in a situation where you have to pay attention to a lot of information, stress wants you to focus on threats instead of opportunities. Forget the blooming azaleas along the freeway. If you don’t see the truck zooming toward you at 90 miles an hour, you’re road kill. You need to react quickly to threatening situations. If your office is on fire, someone breaks into your house, or you’re in a car wreck or terrorist attack, stress protects you from harm. It issues a warning, and the cells of your body heed its call, drenching you in a cocktail of neuropeptides that create a rapid-fire reaction to the threat in lighting speed. And you can feel the exact moment it dumps a tonic of heart-pounding enzymes into your bloodstream so you can fight or flee.
Once you start to consider all the times stress had your back when you thought it was against you, you will begin to appreciate it for what it is—a wise teacher. Constantly on the lookout, it watches when you’re driving in heavy traffic, searching for your car in a dark parking garage, or struggling to meet a tight deadline. Plus you wouldn’t have as much fun. Stress gives you that thrill and excitement when you’re on a roller coaster, bungee jumping, going on safari, rooting for your Super Bowl team, meeting someone on Match.com, getting married, buying your first house, delivering your first child, or going through the haunted house at Halloween.
Befriend My Stress? Seriously?
If someone told you that something you’re doing was adding to your stress and harming you, you’d probably stop doing that thing. Right? Well, I’ve got news for you. Your attitude toward stress can stress you out. A negative attitude toward stress IS the stress. Think about it. How many times have you heard a mental health professional suggest that you combat, beat, conquer, fight or battle stress? When you stop to think about it, that makes no sense. Why would you want to beat or conquer something that Mother Nature wired in you to protect you and help you survive? Consider the fact that going to battle creates a fight-or-flight cycle within you. An adversarial relationship between you and stress only keeps you mired in frustration, anxiety and reactivity.
I want to repeat that stress isn’t your enemy; it’s your friend. Long-standing clinical, mindfulness and neuroscience findings promote “befriending” your stress, which creates inner stillness, allowing you to focus on the real stressors instead of getting sidetracked by the second layer of attacking yourself. I’m reminded of a time when I had a low-grade fever that made me sluggish and concentrating on work difficult. I underwent every test known to humankind, the results of which were negative. I became frustrated and resentful of my fever because it kept me from being on top of my game, or so I thought at the time. It finally dawned on me that it was protecting me—defending my immune system from foreign invaders. I asked myself, “Why am I attacking the very thing that’s taking care of me?” I course corrected, focused on the fever, and send it love and support. I literally spoke to it inside saying, “I’m your ally, behind you all the way.” The next day it was completely gone. This allied approach works with stress in much the same way. When you befriend it, instead of fight it, you start to feel calmer and more relaxed.
You need your stress. I realize this sounds contradictory. But since you don’t have the power to stop the hard-wired stress anyway, consider using it to your advantage and making those butterflies line up and fly in formation. It’s simple science. Kayakers say the best way to escape when you’re trapped in a turbulent, funnel-shaped current known as a hydraulic, is to relax, and the hydraulic will spit you out. If you fight against the current, it keeps you stuck even drowns you. The same principle holds true to flowing, instead of fighting, when you’re caught in a riptide or leaning into a curve, instead of away from it, when you’re on a motorcycle so you don’t flip. It even applies in natural childbirth where, instead of tightening the body and resisting labor pains, mothers-to-be accept and go with the labor pains, not against them, which reduces both maternal pain and obstetrical problems.
So the next time you encounter a threatening event and feel stress spring into action, try to avoid fighting against it and appreciate it for all it does for you. When you become its ally, instead of adversary, and make those butterflies line up and fly in formation, it will pave the way for you to fully engage, optimally perform and thrive in your career. Happy World Health Day!