In 2012, I was asked to give my first TEDx talk. About 10 minutes after hanging up the phone with the organizers, I went from being very flattered to being very freaked out.
It was hard enough to condense my life’s work into a 15-minute talk, but how was I going to remember and successfully deliver said talk in front of 1000 people and 10 cameras with no notes? My brain’s solution to this problem? Ruminate every night at 3 am about how I could possibly get myself out of this.
On the night of the talk, before I was introduced, I was in a flat-out panic. I was certain that the entire room would be able to hear my heart beating through the microphone. I was literally searching for exit signs trying to plot my escape.
But I knew that I had prepared for this. I had given mock versions of the talk to all of my friends and family in my living room. I practiced in the car, in the shower, to the dog, on walks and to anyone who would listen. I knew my talk inside and out. So what could I do, in that moment, where all signals seemed to indicate that I was going to have a meltdown in my chair and never even make it to the stage?
I used my mindful awareness to recognize that this actually wasn’t a life or death situation so fleeing or fighting would do more harm than good. The outcome I wanted more than to run screaming out of the auditorium: to nail my talk. That was not going to happen if I kept telling myself I would fail miserably under pressure. I told myself that I was prepared for this challenge, that these nerves were merely my body showing up. I took a few breaths, went over my talk in my head and stepped onto that stage.
When the stakes are high and the outcome is of great significance to us, our body and brain respond accordingly. Its mission is to make us as alert and action-oriented as possible. You get an influx of adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones. Your heart beats faster to pump everything your muscles and brain need to jump into action. Your body’s physiological response is readying you for whatever challenge you’re about to face.
If it’s a life or death situation, you need this response to get you out of harm’s way. If it’s something not quite as dire, you can actually harness this response rather than suppress it, turning it into something that will help you excel, rather than crack, under pressure.
Sports and Stress
When former Harvard psychology mindset researcher, Jeremy Jamieson, was in college, he noticed that athletes would use their stress response to get amped up for a big game. Not only were they deliberately not trying to calm down, they would go through all kinds of rituals and chants to get even more revved up. Intuitively, they knew this would help their performance. Yet, these same athletes would experience similar physiological responses before an exam and determine that if they couldn’t relax, they were going to epically fail.
In the academic performance setting, they interpreted the same stress signals they felt on the field as harmful rather than helpful. Jamieson went on to show how a challenge response mindset intervention could actually use stress signals to enhance rather than hinder performance in an academic setting. In his study, GRE practice test takers who believed that a challenge response to stress could help their academic performance outperformed comparison groups by 50 points.
To score better, they needed to have less anxiety about their stress response, but, they didn’t actually need to experience less stress.
When we are faced with a stressor, in addition to the physiological changes happening in our brain and body, we also are making an appraisal of the situation. We’re evaluating our resources against the severity of the task and deciding if we have sufficient resources. If we do, we can go into a challenge response, if we don’t we go into a threat response.
Challenge vs Threat
So the difference between perceiving something as a challenge instead of a threat, when we have sufficient resources, is that while we still need the adrenaline and hormone boost to help us have more energy and focus, we can get rid of the debilitating mind chatter that tells us we’re going to fail miserably if we can’t calm the you-know-what down.
Reframing your response to stress …
A cognitive reappraisal of the stress response turning a threat into a challenge has been shown to not only improve performance but also to increase the growth index of stress hormones. An increased growth index is actually a good thing as it indicates resilience. In lay terms, reinterpreting your fight or flight response as a challenge response can increase your stress-resilience.
How to Switch from a Threat to Challenge Response
- Reframe your anxiety as excitement
If you’re about to give a big presentation or are trying to win Olympic gold, Harvard University’s 2013 APA published study on “reappraising performance anxiety as excitement” shows that you can enhance your performance in anything from karaoke, public speaking to math tests with a simple mindset shift. Tell yourself, “I’m excited!” or tell others, “Get excited!” to make this subtle yet statistically significant switch.
- Focus on your resources
The key to shifting from threat to challenge is knowing that you have sufficient resources for success. Surgeons and airline pilots make these kinds of on-the-fly assessments all the time. If they perceive themselves as having sufficient resources for a difficult situation, they can go into the challenge response, if they don’t, they might go into the threat response. If you do not have sufficient resources, then an alternative stress response such as tend and befriend might be more helpful than foregoing the challenge, throwing your hands up and yelling “we’re all going to die!”.
- Recognize how prepared you are for a challenge
Call on times when you have overcome similar or more difficult challenges and replay those in your mind. Ruminate on your past strengths and previous wins, not your weaknesses.
- Use the physical signs of the stress response as a resource
Remind yourself that the stress response you are feeling is your body showing up for a challenging task. Whether it’s your TED talk, a tough negotiation, or a job interview, your increased focus can help you perform better. Your body is giving you more energy and doing everything it can to mobilize you for action. Remind yourself that this response doesn’t have to be an obstacle to peak performance, it can be a catalyst.
I know that whenever I get nervous before a big talk, that it’s a good sign. It means that I care about what I’m about to do and that I’m rising to the challenge. Apathy isn’t what I’m going for in life.
Making sure that no one ever sees us sweat should only be the goal of the deodorant industry. Instead, having faith in yourself that you are more than equipped to handle life’s challenges is the better option.
Kristen Race, Ph.D.
and the Mindful Life Team
PS Have you been thinking about retreating yourself? Learning to surf or paddleboard in Costa Rica or exploring mountain bike trails in Colorado can all be really fun challenges. Just meeting new people and learning how to deepen your mindfulness practice (while relaxing in a gorgeous setting) can be a positive challenge in your life. If you’d like to join me for a mindfulness retreat in Colorado or Costa Rica (with plenty of free time to try out new adventures or just relax), sign up here. Colorado spots are almost full, registration is closing soon. Join me for new challenges!