A little bit of stress can push you to perform at your best. Let it get out of control, and you're at risk of burnout and serious health issues. While it's a simple enough concept to understand, effectively managing stress is much harder in practice. Case in point: 30 percent of Americans that visited a doctor between mid-2017 and mid-2018 went for stress-related issues, according to a survey conducted by media company Everyday Health.
Finding that Goldilocks-esque middle state--enough pressure to encourage mental sharpness, not enough to wear out the body and mind--is where most leaders want to be most of the time. Fortunately, psychologists and performance coaches say you can train your brain to get there--and even leverage stress in high-stakes situations.
It starts with understanding the roles that two hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, play in stress. Here's what you need to know:
Adrenaline and Cortisol
Whenever your body perceives a threat, like receiving an angry email or one more assignment on top of an overwhelming workload, it releases a surge of adrenaline and cortisol into your system. A March 2019 article published by the Mayo Clinic effectively sums up each hormone's function:
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure, and gives you an energy boost.
Cortisol suppresses functions that are unhelpful in fight-or-flight situations, like the digestive and reproductive systems, and sends signals to the parts of your brain that control mood, motivation, and fear.
Together, they can be a game-changer in high-stakes situations, says Jarrod Spencer, a sports psychologist and author who has worked with college athletes at the University of Maryland and Princeton University, among others. Stress, he says, can sharpen your focus to an extreme degree. That's why deadlines and time pressure can be so effective for performance: Cortisol enables above-average productivity, while adrenaline gives you energy to push your physical and mental capabilities.
A Double-Edged Sword
At the same time, staying levelheaded while stressed can be a challenge--and the same two hormones are to blame. "Your body is kicking into survival mode, and 99.9 percent of the time, you're not actually in a life-or-death situation," explains Graham Betchart, a mental skills coach who has worked with basketball stars like Ben Simmons and Karl-Anthony Towns, as well as staffers at venture capital firm True Ventures and Silicon Valley Bank. "You might just be having a talk with someone you work with, and all of a sudden, bang, you're in this very limited, primal state of thinking. You're basically dealing with old, hardwired instincts."
If you don't find ways to recover from stressful situations, you're subjecting your body to overexposure to adrenaline and cortisol, according to the Mayo Clinic. Over the long term, chronic stress increases your risk of anxiety, depression, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleep issues, memory and concentration impairment, and other conditions.
Strategies for Stress
Humans have a built-in mechanism for managing stress as it's happening: The ability to breathe deeply. It's a short term, temporary fix--but a powerful one, says Louisa Sylvia, a staff psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School professor who often works with military veterans and service members. Sylvia explains that taking "big, deep belly breaths" helps with cardiorespiratory coupling--the synching of your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing--which, in turn, helps you stay clearheaded under pressure.
Long term, Betchart adds, you can train your brain to take advantage of stress's positives while ignoring its negatives. He refers to his favorite method as the MVP technique:
Meditation, which trains your breathing and ability to stay mentally grounded in tough situations.
Visualizing yourself overcoming obstacles, which gives you the perspective you need to consistently realize that your stressors aren't life-or-death situations.
Positive self-talk, which motivates you to work hard at regularly managing your stress.
Practicing all three daily, Betchart says, can help you reframe the very nature of stress. "Stress is just energy, right? It's stress when you don't want the energy there, or you can't handle it," he says. "The person who understands how to reframe it into energy and opportunity already has a massive advantage--but you need that training on how to harness it. If you don't, it can overwhelm you."