If you own a car, you may be one of the many people who do their due diligence every so often of getting it serviced. You bring it into the shop so you can make sure things like the oil, tire pressure, air conditioning or heat, and brakes are all functioning properly. You do this so that you and whoever is riding with you stays safe on the road. Yet, when it comes to our mental health, performance, and well-being most of us aren’t as proactive.
Life and performance are not easy; there are big and small bumps, forks, and roadblocks we inevitably encounter on our path to achieving our goals. And though some people make things look easy like the stars have aligned for them (called the iceberg illusion), the recent stories shared by various athletes (for example, Kevin Love recently opened up about his experience with panic attacks and Michael Phelps has shared his experience with depression and transitioning out of high performance sports) and actors (see the recent story from Ryan Reynolds about his struggles with anxiety) as well as commentary in other performance domains, such as dance and business, helps us understand that everyone encounters adversity and stress, which can lead to challenges with mental health, performance, and well-being. Everyone at some point encounters situations in life and performance that require mental toughness (the ability to persist during adversity), resilience (the ability to recover, learn from, and improve as a result of adversity), and grit (the ability to persist through adversity with passion in pursuit of our long-term goals).
We are built to be on the lookout for threats. And when we encounter a potential threat, both mind and body get ready to do something about it. Our bodies immediately react by activating, for example with increased heart rate and muscle tension. Basically, an alarm bell goes off signaling to us that we might have to get ready to do something about this potentially threatening situation. According to Susan Cain, when this happens we either activate the Go System (increased energy and excitement) or the Stop System (increased vigilance and cautiousness). From an evolutionary perspective, this is essential because the main job of our minds and bodies is to keep us alive and out of harm’s way. And we get ready to self-protect not only when we’re walking down a dark street alone at night or are confronted with a life stressor such as a death in the family, but also for that upcoming sports competition, dance audition, difficult conversation when we are in a leadership role, or important presentation to prospective clients.
This is where the mind comes in. Our minds respond to this activation by making an interpretation of the situation so we can decide how to respond. This occurs through a two-step appraisal process:
1) We assess the stressful situation to determine the demand being placed on us (how important is this, the uncertainty of the outcome, implications and potential consequences of the situation, effects on self and others) so that we can determine how much of a threat it is.
2) We assess our perceived capability for handling the situation (do we feel like we have what it takes to handle this and do we have what we need, such as time, support, money, to take care of this situation effectively).
The balance between these two perceptions is important. If we perceive the demand to be high and/or higher than our capability in general or at this point in time, the situation is deemed a threat and we experience distress. The more distress we experience at once and over time, the more challenging it becomes for us to effectively cope with stress. And this can turn into a nasty downward spiral where that alarm bell is getting signaled more often (even for that minor daily hassle that normally wouldn’t bother us this much) and our perceptions of our capability to handle the demands being placed on us keep diminishing (even the demands we normally enjoy). This can lead to feeling overwhelmed, greater emotional reactivity, decreased focus and motivation, poor performance, and can eventually lead to burnout, mental health challenges, and illness.
So, what can we do to be more proactive about the stress we know we will encounter at some point? Being mentally healthy doesn’t have to be about fixing ourselves once things have gone wrong; it can also be about putting ourselves in the best position to be more resilient to stress and more able to persevere despite the inevitable adversity we face in life and performance.
Below are a few of the go-to strategies I use with the athletes, coaches, teams, dancers, business professionals, and other performers I work with to get proactive about stress so that they are armed and ready to deal with it when it occurs, can respond instead of react to stressful situations, and are capable of better managing stress over time.
1. Clarify your values and consistently check in with your alignment to them. What 3-4 core values best characterize one or more of the following: what’s most important to you, who you are, who you want to be? Once you identify those, get clear on what that looks like and doesn’t look like in action. For example, if passion is a defining feature for you, what does it look like when you are performing or living consistently with that value? And remember to not only go through this exercise now, but also make it a consistent habit of checking in on your alignment with your values often, this way you are always reminding yourself about what’s most important.
2. Change your perspective. As I mentioned, we are built to be on guard for threats (the harm, the obstacle, the difficulty, the negative) and some of us have a tendency to view things from a more pessimistic lens. But we don’t have to view it as such. It is more useful to switch that perspective to focusing on the challenge (the gain, the potential benefit, the growth). This is about making a choice of what to focus on. That upcoming event or competition might be extremely important and anxiety-provoking, but can it also be exciting and a way to get even better than you already are? You might have just failed and I bet it feels pretty awful, but what is the silver lining or the lesson learned? Find the challenge or the benefit. As Jason Taylor, a former NFL player, once stated: “Ease is a greater threat to growth than hardship.”
3. Be mindful of the messages you are sending to yourself. How you think about, talk about, and react to stress all give your mind and body feedback about how you’re feeling, how capable you think you are, and whether to keep that alarm bell activated or let it know it can turn off and wait for the next potential threat. Some of the latest research on stress is indicating that our beliefs about it may be more important than how we react to it (check out Kelly McGonigal’s book The Upside of Stress and the research being done by Alia Crum on the power of mindset/belief). If you believe stress is bad for you and tell everyone how stressed you are, your mind and body will respond accordingly. You might find your thoughts and self-talk are negative or self-defeating and your body language changes as a result of fatigue, decreased confidence, and muscle tension. While this is a reaction to the stress, it is also a feedback loop to you about how to proceed and contributes to your overall beliefs about and response to stress. And, this not only affects you but also those around you (emotional contagion is real!). Stress, up to a point, is good for you. You actually need it to perform at an optimal level and you crave some level of it to be motivated and engaged. So, is stress something awful you have to deal with or is it something to be embraced? Make sure your self-talk and body language are aligned with this perspective (note: this doesn’t have to and shouldn’t mean being unrealistically positive or optimistic).
4. Make recharging a habit. Stress and focus are very energy demanding and depleting. Thus, it’s extremely important to not just recharge eventually at some point when you really need to, but rather make recharging a habit. And taking breaks actually leads to more focused, productive, and effective work than trying to do something all at once. In order to do this effectively, you have to find what works best for you. Most people think the difference between introverts and extroverts is related to social preferences, but in reality this aspect of personality is more about sensitivity to stimulation. Introverts tend to best recharge their energy by doing things less stimulating (for example, reading a book or having lunch with a close friend) whereas extroverts may recharge better from activities that are more stimulating (for example, going dancing at a crowded nightclub or going to dinner with a large group of people). Further, we each like and dislike different things, so you have to find the activities that you find enjoyable but also that help to refuel your energy. And, regardless of who we are and what we prefer, getting out into nature and getting active are well-supported by science in terms of their energy regeneration and focus optimization benefits.
5. Feed your confidence. The secondary appraisal the mind goes through when confronted with a situation is in large part about your beliefs about your capability (how confident you are that you can handle the stressor). Most often though we naturally don’t feel confident in stressful situations, at least right away, or we wait for something to give us that confidence. But we don’t have to wait, we can make an effort to fill that confidence tank on our own as well as make sure we value and remember the things that we accomplish and persevere through. For example, I read a story about a CEO of a very large corporation who keeps a book on his desk that contains reminders for each year of his life about the things he has accomplished, the adversity he’s overcome, etc. Every time he feels self-doubt he turns to this book. What would you put in your book?
6. Label your feelings. Google that feelings chart if needed to get clear on what you are actually feeling by labeling it. This not only helps you clarify what you are really feeling (there is a difference between feeling irritated and irate), but also helps you get a better sense of the strength of your emotion, and most importantly gives you the opportunity to self-regulate so you can choose how you want to respond instead of reacting based on how you feel.
7. Contingency plan. Don’t get stuck ruminating on the what ifs or not think about the things that could potential come up at all. Instead spend some time thinking through what obstacles, adversity, or stressors you might encounter and come up with action plans for them. This way you have already prepared yourself for handling stressors up front when you had the clarity to make sure you were mindfully choosing how to respond in each situation effectively.
8. Practice mindfulness daily. The aims of mindfulness with regards to stress are threefold: 1) to engage us in the present moment instead of being caught up ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, 2) help create a gap of awareness where we notice where our mind is at so we can choose how we want to respond instead of reacting, and 3) be more accepting of our circumstances, particularly the ones we can’t control, and more compassionate with ourselves so that we can sit with difficult emotions and situations. That might sound like a tall order, but it is the result of very simple practices. First, incorporate mindfulness meditation to practice your ability to notice and refocus. This need not be for long periods of time (3-5 minutes can work or even just one minute if that’s all you have today), the goal is to make it a consistent practice not necessarily a lengthy one. You can use an app or some other form of guided meditation if you find that most helpful or you can just set a timer on your phone, close your eyes and focus on your breathing, when you notice your mind has wandered somewhere else which it naturally will thanks to the monkey mind we all have, simply refocus back onto your breathing. There are many forms of mindfulness meditation, but the aim of this one is to get better at creating that gap of awareness so you can mindfully respond in stressful situations (i.e., not let your mind lead you down the wrong path and refocus back onto what is most important). Second, use mindful moments throughout the day to reconnect with the present moment. To do this, take a brief amount of time to connect with one of your senses. For example, the sound of the wind, the feel of the sun on your skin, the feeling of your feet on the ground, the feel of your breath coming in and out of your body, the feeling of your hands against your desk or the points of contact between you and the chair you are sitting on, or the sounds around you. You can also incorporate this into your daily routines and activities, such as when eating, washing the dishes, taking a shower, or brushing your teeth.
What 1 or 2 strategies above will you put into practice to get proactive about your mental health, performance, and well-being?
“To strengthen and expand our mind, we must invest in it.” – Daniel Chidiac