We hear a lot nowadays about pressure and stress, for example second level students and the CAO points race; the struggle to get on the housing ladder, achieving high performance in sports, etc. The psychology behind coping and performing under pressure is reviewed by Emma Young in the Research Digest of the British Psychological Society .
Stress is a normal part of life and, at appropriate levels, is good for us – Eustress. The body is programmed with automatic physiological reactions to changes that requires physical, mental or emotional responses. For example, when you suddenly encounter danger your body automatically releases adrenaline, a hormone that initiates increased heart rate, faster breathing and tensed muscles, preparing you for “fight or flight”. If you continue to sense danger the body releases the hormone cortisol that raises blood glucose levels to power fight or flight. Without this automatic reaction to perceived danger the human race would not have survived for long.
Other forms of “good stress” are initiated by significant positive events in our lives such as getting married, getting your first house, having a baby, starting a new job, and so on. This type of stress tends to empower you and sharpen your focus so that you rise to the occasion. You experience good stress as a positive energy that is not at all unpleasant.
And then we have “bad stress” – distress – where we inappropriately activate the fight or flight response on an ongoing basis. This type of stress is unpleasant and debilitating and, over time, chronically elevated cortisol levels can initiate/worsen serious health problems, both mental (depression and anxiety) and physical (heart disease, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes). A chronic bad-stress situation would be, for example, working under very demanding and unsympathetic superiors.
Emma Young explains that your “stress mindset” is important in the determining how you handle stress/pressure. A positive stress mindset recognises that challenge can boost your motivation, sharpen your focus and offer learning opportunities. A negative mindset fears stress, finding it unpleasant and debilitating.
Research has shown that people with a positive stress mindset devise coping strategies to boost performance and to feel energised when faced with a challenge. The opposite happens to people with negative stress mindset. People with a negative mindset can help themselves by consciously focusing on the positive aspects of stress characteristic of the positive mindset.
Research has also shown that being cheerful and/or having a positive attitude about yourself helps you to perform better under stress. Friends are important and even a text message from a friend is helpful when you are facing a stressful situation, as also is conjuring up a mental image of your romantic partner.
Under high pressure some peoples’ skills deteriorate drastically – they “choke” under pressure. Choking has been intensively studied in sport. For example, Young reports that elite male tennis players are twice as adversely affected by high-pressure than female players, apparently because males secrete higher amounts of cortisol than females.
The opposite phenomenon to choking is “clutch performance” where performance level dramatically increases under pressure. Athletes report being in a “state of flow” in clutch performance – so involved in their sport that they are not even aware of the spectators, intensely focused on the task, maintaining intense effort over time and not thinking about failure.
Reassessing what is happening can dramatically reduce risk of choking and generally help you cope better, eg when playing tennis instead of thinking "I am serving poorly and may lose" think "I am returning serve well and could win". Ireland's national rugby team captain Rory Best made a telling comment in The Sunday Independent recently: "Since I've turned 30, I've played my best rugby, and part of that has actually been it not being the be all and end all in life."
Finally, we must accept that “shit happens”. There is no way to avoid some bad stress so we must develop resilience and manage our stress. Work on developing a positive stress mindset, cultivate cheerfulness and optimism, take plenty of aerobic exercise, develop a hobby, cultivate friendships and good work-life balance. And don’t worry, you are not uniquely vulnerable. Life is the same old ding-dong for everybody.
William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC