3 Ways to Use Stress to Fuel Peak Performance

by Kelly McGonigal, PhD on Jan 16, 2017

Inner IDEA

Learn three strategies that sometimes may be more effective than trying to relax.

You've been training a client for her first half-marathon. You show up on race day to support her, and she's anxious. She had trouble falling asleep last night. Now, just minutes before she lines up, her heart is pounding and her face looks panicked.

What advice do you give her?

Most trainers would say, "Take a deep breath. Calm down. You don't need to be nervous."

We all know that deep breathing to calm the nervous system is a go-to strategy for dealing with stress. But is it always the best strategy?



Let's look at three alternative approaches and how you can apply them with clients.

Anxious or Excited?

A Harvard Business School study compared two very different ways of dealing with stress (Brooks 2014). Participants were about to deliver a speech or compete in Karaoke Revolution, and everyone was anxious. Some were told to try to calm down. Others were instructed to embrace their nerves and tell themselves they were excited.

Which strategy worked better?

Surprisingly, trying to calm down didn't reduce participants' anxiety. It just highlighted the gap between how people felt and how they thought they should be feeling. By contrast, those who tried to channel their anxiety into excitement felt more confident and prepared; importantly, they also gave superior speeches and sang on key more often.

This study is one of many showing that there is more to managing stress than simply trying to relax. And yet most of us—fitness professionals included—continue to emphasize relaxation as the primary defense against stress. In fact, before the Harvard researcher ran her study, she asked a separate group to predict which strategy for pre-performance anxiety would work best. Ninety-one percent chose "try to calm down."

In my work as a psychologist and fitness professional, I've found that expanding our repertoire of strategies for dealing with stress is enormously helpful. When we can't calm down, we can harness the energy of stress to fuel peak performance. When we're stuck in a difficult situation, we can choose to learn from the experience. And when we feel hopeless or overwhelmed, we can connect to something bigger than ourselves.

Stress Strategy #1: Harness the Energy of Stress

How would you feel about jumping out of an airplane? Personally, I'd be petrified, but maybe you'd find it fun. If this were true, how do you think our stress responses to skydiving would differ?

Studies have actually compared the physiological responses of terrified first-timers and experienced skydivers (Allison et al. 2012; Hare, Wetherell & Smith 2013). They don't differ. Stress hormones soar no matter how experienced a jumper is. Heart rates go up whether people are scared or thrilled. Either way, the autonomic nervous system shows the same pattern of reactivity. In fact, the similarity of skydivers' responses led one researcher to argue that "fi ght or fl ight" is indistinguishable from "excite and delight."

Think about that: At a physiological level, there isn't much difference between a fear-based stress response and a feel-good adrenaline rush. Both flood the body and brain with energy to help you rise to a challenge. Yet how you interpret your pounding heart and sweaty palms can be the difference between feeling panicked and feeling amped up.

It turns out that choosing a positive interpretation of stress is something many elite athletes have learned to do. Most people view stress as debilitating, but accomplished athletes tend to view it as energy that can fuel them (Jones, Hanton & Swain 1994). They don't see stress as a barrier to performance, and they don't view anxiety as a signal they are going to choke. And while non-elite athletes focus on using relaxation techniques to calm nerves, elite athletes interpret their anxiety as helpful, and they attempt to harness its energy through self-talk and visualization (Neil, Mellalieu & Hanton 2006).

Advising people to adopt this mindset improves performance in many domains. Golfers make better shots when they are encouraged to reinterpret physical stress symptoms as energy (Moore et al. 2015). Students given the same instructions before a stressful exam score higher and report less emotional exhaustion (Jamieson et al. 2010; John-Henderson, Rheinschmidt & Mendoza-Denton 2015; Strack, Lopes & Esteves 2015). New hires walk away from a negotiation with higher starting salaries when told to view their stress response as helpful (Fridman et al. under review).

The takeaway: When something you care about is at stake, it's okay to be stressed—and harnessing the energy of stress can help you succeed.

Putting Strategy #1 Into Practice

  1. Encourage clients to channel whatever stress they are feeling from work or home into their workouts. "Take whatever frustrations, anxiety or adrenaline you have from today and let it become the energy that helps you get stronger, fitter and faster."
  2. Talk to clients about how elite athletes think. If clients express anxiety or self-doubt, let them know that even top competitors feel the same way. Explain to clients that if they can't control their nerves, it's all right; the adrenaline rush can propel them to peak performance.
  3. Talk positively about how it feels to work out. "Feel your heart pounding? That's the sensation of your heart getting stronger!" or "Breathing faster? Good! Take in the extra oxygen and fuel your body." By normalizing physical symptoms such as sweating or a pounding heart, exercise helps people cope better with anxiety (Smits et al. 2008).

Strategy #2: Choose a Growth Mindset

Think of a time in your life that changed you in a positive way. Maybe you came to recognize your own strength, or you found greater appreciation for your life. Maybe you discovered your courage or developed more compassion for others. Maybe it was a turning point that forced you to reconsider your priorities or make an important change.

Whatever your story is, my guess is that it was also stressful while you were going through it. Psychologists know that it is through stress that we learn and grow—even if the process isn't always fun. Difficult experiences can have positive outcomes, whether it's the resilience and personal development that derive from surmounting obstacles, or the posttraumatic growth that can follow serious adversity (Linley & Joseph 2004; Seery 2011).

Remembering this during times of stress can make you more resilient. Researchers at Hope College asked participants to think about a recent experience that was emotionally painful (vanOyen Witvliet et al. 2010). Typically, this creates an unhealthy stress response, marked by anger, shame and elevated blood pressure. But when participants were asked to think about what they could learn from the experience, they shifted into a healthier state. Instead of fuming, they reported feelings of gratitude and joy. They also had higher heart rate variability, a sign of physical and emotional resilience.

In another study, Ohio University researchers put participants through a stressful mock job interview followed by critical feedback (Chadwick et al. 2016). Afterward, some were encouraged to review the experience with a growth mindset. They were reminded that the practice interview would help them succeed in similar situations in the future. Participants who took this perspective showed greater resilience than those who were left to ruminate. In participants with the positive mindset, heart rates recovered faster, and people reported less anxiety, anger and guilt. They also felt more hope and happiness.

The takeaway: You can strengthen your resilience by thinking about how a stressful situation can contribute to your personal goals and growth.

Putting Strategy #2 Into Practice

  1. Have clients reflect on their fitness and wellness journeys. Point out their progress. Ask regulars, "What can you do now that, when you started, you thought you'd never be able to do?" Recognizing how they have grown can give clients the confidence to face future challenges.
  2. Nurture a growth mindset by helping clients set "reach" goals. Is there a movement they want to be able to do? An accomplishment they would celebrate?
  3. Help clients see the connection between physical training and personal growth. You might ask, "What are you training for?" "What challenge are you ready to conquer in the rest of your life?" or "What in your life do you want to be strong for?" Clients don't need to tell you the answer—but you can inspire them to ask themselves these questions.

Strategy #3: Make It About Something Bigger Than Yourself

Imagine two people in a hospital waiting room, both worried. One reaches out to hold the other's hand, hoping to comfort her and offer compassion. Which of the two will experience greater stress relief?

Both will likely feel better, but the person who offered the compassion will get the bigger benefit. Neuroscientists have studied what happens in the brain during social support, and giving support reduces stress significantly more than receiving support (Inagaki et al. 2016). Helping someone else decreases activity in the fear system of the brain and increases activity in the brain's hope circuit (Inagaki & Eisenberger 2012). Moreover, just thinking about helping and encouraging someone else can create the same stress-relieving changes in the brain (Engen & Singer 2015).

In fact, connecting to any prosocial goal seems to reduce stress and boost resilience. University of Michigan researchers wanted to know how a bigger-than-self mindset would affect people who were about to complete a competitive job interview (Abelson et al. 2014). They asked some participants to spend a few minutes thinking about what they wanted to contribute to the world, and how the job would allow them to pursue these prosocial goals. Compared with others in the study, these participants had healthier levels of the stress hormones ACTH and cortisol before and during the interview. They also returned to their nonstressed baseline faster.

Another study found that reflecting on prosocial motivations—for example, the joy you take in caring for others, or your commitment to giving back to your community—helped participants recover from a painful social rejection (Burson, Crocker & Mischkowski 2012). Those who thought about their prosocial behavior felt more loving, compassionate and connected—and were better able to resist the temptation of cookies the experimenter left in the room!

The takeaway: In a moment of stress, thinking about others who might also be struggling, or connecting to the joy of helping others, can be a powerful source of resilience.

Putting Strategy #3 Into Practice

  1. In group fitness, focus on the collective. Talk about the class as a unit. "We are stronger as a team; draw on the strength of the people working out around you. Let your energy give strength to the person next to you, and the person behind you."
  2. Create opportunities for clients to give back while connecting with friends, family and neighbors. Share information about charity races, or form a team to train for one. Host an event that honors local heroes or raises funds for a community cause.
  3. Encourage clients to adopt a prosocial mindset before any big event, whether it's a competition or just a tough conversation. Encourage them to think about who and what they care about—perhaps dedicating a race or yoga class to a loved one, or entering a meeting thinking about their personal purpose and why their work matters.

References

Abelson, J.L., et al. 2014. Brief cognitive intervention can modulate neuroendocrine stress responses to the Trier Social Stress Test: Buffering effects of a compassionate goal orientation. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 44, 60-70.

Allison, A.L., et al. 2012. Fight, flight, or fall: Autonomic nervous system reactivity during skydiving. Personality and Individual Differences, 53 (3), 218-23.

Brooks, A.W. 2014. Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143 (3), 1144-58.

Burson, A., Crocker, J., & Mischkowski, D. 2012. Two types of value-affirmation: Implications for self-control following social exclusion. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3 (4), 510-16.

Chadwick, A.E., et al. 2016. Communication and stress: Effects of hope evocation and rumination messages on heart rate, anxiety, and emotions after a stressor. Health Communication, 31 (12), 1447-59.

Engen, H.G., & Singer, T. 2015. Compassion-based emotion regulation up-regulates experienced positive affect and associated neural networks. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10 (9), 1291-1301.

Fridman, I., et al. Adaptive appraisals of arousal improve outcomes in salary negotiations. Manuscript under review. Available at http://mbl.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/fridmancrumetalcortisol_and_negotiations2.28.15ur.pdf.

Hare, O.A., Wetherell, M.A., & Smith, M.A. 2013. State anxiety and cortisol reactivity to skydiving in novice versus experienced skydivers. Physiology & Behavior, 118, 40-44.

Inagaki, T.K., & Eisenberger, N.I. 2012. Neural correlates of giving support to a loved one. Psychosomatic Medicine, 74, 3-7.

Inagaki, T.K., et al. 2016. The neurobiology of giving versus receiving support: The role of stress-related and social reward-related neural activity. Psychosomatic Medicine, 78 (4), 443-53.

Jamieson, J.P., et al. 2010. Turning the knots in your stomach into bows: Reappraising arousal improves performance on the GRE. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (1), 208-12.

John-Henderson, N.A., Rheinschmidt, M.L., & Mendoza-Denton, R. 2015. Cytokine responses and math performance: The role of stereotype threat and anxiety reappraisals. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 56, 203-206.

Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Swain, A. 1994. Intensity and interpretation of anxiety symptoms in elite and non-elite sports performers. Personality and Individual Differences, 17 (5), 657-63.

Linley, P.A., & Joseph, S. 2004. Positive change following trauma and adversity: A review. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 17 (1), 11-21.

Moore, L.J., et al. 2015. Reappraising threat: How to optimize performance under pressure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 37 (3), 339-43.

Neil, R., Mellalieu, S.D., & Hanton, S. 2006. Psychological skills usage and the competitive anxiety response as a function of skill level in rugby union. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 5 (3), 415-23.

Seery, M.D. 2011. Resilience: A silver lining to experiencing adverse life events? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (6), 390-94.

Smits, J.A.J. et al. 2008. Reducing anxiety sensitivity with exercise. Depression and Anxiety, 25 (8), 689-99.

Strack, J., Lopes, P.N., & Esteves, F. 2015. Will you thrive under pressure or burn out? Linking anxiety motivation and emotional exhaustion. Cognition and Emotion, 29 (4), 578-91.

vanOyen Witvliet, C., et al. 2010. Compassion-focused reappraisal, benefit-focused reappraisal, and rumination after an interpersonal offense: Emotion-regulation implications for subjective emotion, linguistic responses, and physiology. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5 (3), 226-42.

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About the Author

Kelly McGonigal, PhD

Kelly McGonigal, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, teaches yoga, fitness and psychology at Stanford University, and is the author of the forthcoming Yoga for Pain Relief (New Harbinger 2009). Visit her website at www.kellymcgonigal.com.