How Stress Can Make You Stronger, According to Science
Jason paced the corridor outside the boardroom, his palms dampening the printout of his PowerPoint presentation to the board. He could hear his pulse in his ears—boom-rush, boom-rush, and his mouth was too dry to even rehearse the opening sentence of his pitch.
The last time he had felt like this, he had tried to calm himself with soothing words—”relax,” “calm”—but it hadn’t worked, and he had dried up mid-presentation. This time would be different. Quietly, but distinctly, he said to himself, “I feel excited.”
Suddenly, there was a strange alchemy: the racing pulse, twisting stomach, dry mouth and sweaty palms were changed from one emotion—anxiety—into a quite different one—excitement.The boardroom door opened, and they called him in. All at once he was energized by a challenge rather than depleted by a threat, as had happened the last time. He performed brilliantly; this time the Board accepted his pitch.
This is not fantasy—it is based on the science of emotion which tells us that the same bodily symptoms—racing heart, sweating skin, dry mouth, churning stomach—underlie many different emotions, including anger, anxiety and … excitement.
These all arise because a bodily network called the sympathetic autonomic nervous system goes into overdrive in what we commonly know as the “fight or flight” response. But if the same symptoms are common to all these different emotions, how do we know what we are feeling? The answer is simple: context.
If I am about to give a presentation to a disapproving board who rejected my last pitch, my racing heart must mean that I am anxious. But suppose I change that context using my mind’s ability to rewrite the software controlling my brain’s chemistry? How? By saying the words “I feel excited.”
Recent research has shown that these three words create a new context, one in which the symptoms of arousal can be used as a sort of performance-enhancing energy rather than as a self-defeating threat. In other words, saying “I feel relaxed” doesn’t cut any mustard with an aroused brain, while “I feel excited” might well do the trick.
In fact, interpreted in this way, “stress” can become a source of positive energy that can aid your performance. This is because a key component of stress is the neurotransmitter norepinephrine which, like many of the brain’s chemical messengers, has an inverted U-shaped function, with too little or too much causing the brain to underperform.