Stress is a normal response when faced with a situation we think we can’t control and realistically it isn’t something we can eradicate from our lives. So just how can you boost your mental fitness and ability to perform under pressure? Jodie Rogers finds out
We need to change our relationship with stress. If we allowing stress to dominate our lives it can cause tremendous damage but if we change our perspective on stress, it can become:
- A great motivator
- A source of strength
- A survival instinct that pushes us beyond our perceived limits
Learning from stress in this way requires you to take a good look at what is stressing you out and decide if you can control or influence it in any way.
For example, if tight deadlines are causing you to stress out at work, you need to determine if this is something you can influence or control. If you can change it, you need to create an action plan to decrease the stress surrounding the task. For example, perhaps delegate some of the tasks to a team member, or ask your boss to move the parameters?
Internal distractions – the ‘amygdala hijack’
Often the key to helping us feel less stressed and more focused is eliminating the unnecessary distractions in our life, many of which happen internally.
Any time we have a sense of fear, insecurity, doubt, worry or anxiety, a pathway between our amygdala and our prefrontal cortex gets activated.
This pathway is designed to prioritise our survival in stressful situations, like an internal alarm system. It’s designed to protect us, but sometimes it can be over-sensitive and fill our brain with emotion, fear, panic and anxiety, which causes us to stress.
The problem is, any chance you have of rationalising things is taken away because your prefrontal cortex is off. This is what’s known as the ‘amygdala hijack’.
The good news is we can exercise and strengthen our neural pathways through repeated practice of eliminating distractions like worry and doubt.
When you start falling victim to the amygdala hijack, it’s important you are able to get it back under control. To help with that, here are four things you can do:
- Meditate: Proven to physically change the structure of your amygdala.
- Counting from one to 10: When you count, you are switching on the prefrontal cortex (the logical part of the brain).
- Counting and breathing: When you take those deep, mindful breaths, you are activating the parasympathetic nervous system, and the net result is that you feel calmer and more focused.
- Silent Scream: Go somewhere private (so people don’t think you’re crazy) and clench your whole body, bend your knees, contract all of your muscles and scream silently. This will help you get rid of the adrenaline in your body causing you to panic.
Our emotions are our biggest internal distractions. When we are in a heightened emotional state, we are stressed and this stops us focusing. Try practising these exercises the next time you become overwhelmed or stressed out – they will help you regain control over the situation.
Learning to let go
Sometimes, there will be things that are completely outside of your control. If that is the case, you need to be able to let go and recognise that you cannot control the outcome.
In some seemingly hopeless situations, you need to adopt a more ‘zen’ attitude. This is where meditation and mindfulness can really help, because allowing something you have neither influence nor control over to affect your emotions, stress levels and overall wellbeing is irrational, and ultimately harmful to your mental and physical state.
Typically, there are three main focus levels made famous by the Yerkes-Dodson Law:
1Disengaged: To tackle disengagement, you need to find a personal purpose or goal within your work. Ask yourself the following questions:
- ‘What can I uniquely bring to this project that will improve it in some way?’
- ‘What can I focus on that will not only get the business/project results, but will be personally fulfilling and rewarding for me also?’
2Frazzle: If you are stressed, there will be lots of activity in your emotional circuitry that is irrelevant to the task at hand, and which will create a state of anxious distractedness.
If you are overwhelmed by the magnitude of a task, the best thing to do is break it down into all of its component parts. Get some post-it notes and write down as many tasks as possible, one per post-it note. Once you have it all out of your head, then organise the tasks.
Now, make a plan for how you can get everything done. To help you, ask yourself these three questions:
Do I have the capacity to do all of these tasks?
- If yes, then plan what needs to happen first.
- If no, work out what you can delegate or who you can bring in to help you.
Do I have the time?
- If yes, put in order of priority.
- If no, see which tasks you can renegotiate timelines on, or what you can delegate, outsource, etc.
Do I have the capability?
- If yes, put in order of priority as above.
- If no, see who you can bring in to help.
3Flow: When we are in a state of flow, only those brain areas relevant to one activity are activated.
Flow represents a peak of self-regulation and maximum performance or learning. This is where a little bit of stress is actually good for us. It gets us motivated and out of the disengaged zone and into the flow zone. A good example would be a deadline at work or a phone call from your boss
We can enhance our ability to get into flow by ‘preparing the stage’. That means creating the right environment for optimal performance. For example:
- Get the basics right – get a good night’s sleep, eat and perhaps exercise. This will lessen internal distractions.
- Pre-empt distractions – clear your diary, turn off all notifications on your computer and your phone. This will lessen external distractions.
- If you work well with music, choose the album best suited to the type of work you’ll be doing.
- Prepare for future distractions – have snacks and refreshments at hand. Have everything you need already at hand (so you don’t go on a one-hour escapade looking for paper).
The trick with getting into flow is to find the right balance between your skill level and the challenge you are facing. You want something that is a bit of a stretch, but not an over-stretch. This is when we are at our best in terms of performance.
We all get stressed in life
So remember, the goal is not to eradicate stress (that’s impossible and some stress is good for us) but to manage our relationship with it in a healthy way.
The secret is to focus on what we can control rather than on what we can’t. That way we can eliminate (or limit) the negative effects of stress and perhaps use it as a productive tool instead.
Jodie Rogers is a human behaviour consultant, founder of Symbia and author of The Hidden Edge: Why Mental Fitness is the Only Advantage That Matters in Business out now.