We’ve all been there. The looming deadline. The high stakes work. The pressure mounting. The finish line and our chances of getting there are touch and go. But we rise up to the challenge, not only hitting the mark but smashing it out of the park.
As we breathe a sigh of relief we say to ourselves, ‘Never again’.
But soon we find ourselves back there again.
Well in a word, stress. Or more to the point, our complicated relationship with stress. We NEED stress...the good kind that is. It drives up productivity allowing us to achieve beyond perceived limits. The challenge these days is that the story of stress in modern society often only highlights the bad. Anxiety, burnout, poor motivation, are all horrible negative elements that occur when we become over stressed.
So to discover which stress is good and which isn’t, we need to journey back in time and dig into the history of stress. This history lesson will provide a really useful framework for developing individuals and organisations that thrive under pressure.
The birth of stress
Stress as a term has only been around since the early 20th Century and was coined by the “Father of Stress”, Slovakian Scientist Hans Selye when he was testing a hypothesis on ovarian hormones using rats as the test subject. Selye discovered that no matter what substance he substituted for the ovarian hormone, the same reactions happened in the rats. It wasn’t the substance that was instigating the reaction. It was the situation. The situation set off a chain of reactions and those reactions were the same no matter what substance was used. Eventually the rats would die from the sustained stress of the situation.
Two sides to every story
Selye defined stress “as an organisms unspecific reaction to any kind of external demand.” He also defined stress as both positive and negative. Positive stress was named ‘eustress’, based on the Greek word ‘Eu’ meaning good and negative stress was labelled ‘distress’, inspired by the Latin word ‘Dis’, meaning bad. Distress can lead to anxiety if the stress is too high but on the flip side, can also lead to boredom if the stress is not enough.
Yep, you read it right. Low stress is also a negative stress.
The current narrative on stress highlights the negative. When we think of the word stress, we instantly are drawn to our own negative experiences. Stress is bad. That’s what we know, that’s what we believe. But unfortunately it is only half the narrative. To help guide us, we will use a powerful framework to understand the thinking that occurs when we are placed under stress. It is within this framework that we can start to negotiate the necessary mindset, skill sets and coping strategies to turn the tide on stress.
Situation and Self
Inspired by Dr. Selye’s work, Dr. Richard Lazarus and Dr. Susan Folkman developed the Transactional Model of Stress. In this framework, stress ‘is the result of a transactional process between a person and the environment’ (Peifer, 2012). When an external demand (challenge/pressure) is placed on an individual, a certain process is followed. The first assessment we make is whether or not the situation is a threat. If a threat is perceived, we make a second appraisal. Do I have the strategies to cope with this situation? It is this key decision that shapes the stress path we choose. If we believe we don’t have the ability to cope, the stress is perceived as negative stress or distress. If we believe we have the ability to cope, we perceive the stress as eustress and this creates the opportunity for optimal performance.
The demands of the situation meet our skill level and we rise to the challenge.
The work flows out of us effortlessly.
We connect disparate ideas.
We lose all sense of time and feel deeply connected to the work
We are uber productive.
We enter an optimal state of consciousness that psychology calls ‘flow’.
Flow - the antidote to stress
Coined by Hungarian Psychologist, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, flow is an “altered state of consciousness in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” It is an optimal state of experience and performance. In flow, people feel great and their performance is elevated. It boosts both morale and productivity.
So how much more productive can you be in flow? How about up to five times?
In a ten year study by McKinsey and Company, 5000 high performing executives operating at their peak reported being up to five times more productive when in Flow. This number varied from person to person but on average executives felt that their output dramatically increased when in a flow state. The challenge however, was that these executives also self reported only being in Flow about 10% of the time. As well as driving up our performance, Flow is one of the only times where five of our most potent neurochemicals are released in our brain at the same time. These neurochemicals enable us to connect disparate ideas, focus intensely, feel really good and connect deeper with other humans. As the Flow Genome Project, a world leading authority on Flow Science, state in their definition of Flow, “we feel our best and perform our best.”
Making friends with stress
Stress is required for Flow to show up. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi listed nine dimensions of Flow and one key Flow dimension is called the Challenge/Skills ratio. This refers directly to stress. Stress is the demands or challenge of a situation. We need to increase/decrease the demands of task to a point that is suitable for our skill level. If the demands are too high, our anxiety rises. If the demands are too low, it promotes boredom. Finding the Goldilocks spot, where it is just right, helps drive our attention into the now. Cortisol, aka the stress chemical, is released and this helps us focus with more intensity. Cortisol enhances selective attention in the brain which filters out superfluous information and tightens focus on the task at hand. We become better at blocking out information that doesn’t enable us to achieve our goal and we become deeply immersed in the task at hand. In an age of distraction, this capacity to deeply focus on demanding work is a modern day superpower and it enables us to reach a peak state of performance. It enables us to be more productive and to feel our best.
Strategies for building a better stress relationship
Contributor: Steve Brophy
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