December 2, 2020

How to Use Positive Stress for Optimal Performance

Clare Sarah Goodridge
Written by
Clare Sarah Goodridge
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You may be surprised to learn that stress can be positive. 

Training in high-stress situations increases what psychologists call “situational awareness.” Defined as the ability to absorb information accurately, assess it calmly, and respond appropriately, situational awareness is essentially the ability to keep cool when all hell breaks loose,” wrote Steven Kotler in The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.

Stress is a daily part of everyone’s life, but it doesn’t have to ruin your life. 

Optimal performers learn how to use the positive aspects of stress to increase their quality of life. 

If you’re looking to improve your daily performance, you need to understand how to leverage your nervous system’s response to stress.  

That is the subject of episode 6 of Flow Research Collective Radio. This episode is all about optimal performance in stressful environments. 

You’ll hear insights from Dr. Andrew D. Huberman, an American neuroscientist and tenured associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. 

Joining Dr. Huberman on this podcast episode is Rich Diviney, someone who experienced extremely high-stress environments for over twenty years as a Navy SEAL Officer.

Before you listen to the episode in full, here’s some helpful background on the different types of stress and tips for improving performance in high-stress environments. 

The Two Types of Stress: Positive and Negative

Negative stress are things that cause distress. This type of stress is the result of an actual threat to your life or well being. Negative stress events include things like being the victim of abuse, dealing with life-threatening illnesses to yourself or a loved one, losing a job, or flunking out of school. 

Over the long term, negative stress leads to chronic anxiety, insomnia, depression, and many other health problems, including high blood pressure and heart disease. 

However, even negative stress can lead to positive outcomes with the right mindset. Post traumatic growth is the term psychologists use to describe people who experience positive transformation after trauma. We’ll discuss a few of the habits that can lead to this outcome below. 

Thankfully, most of the stress we face daily isn’t of the traumatic life or death variety. Most daily stress actually comes from new life challenges that can lead to positive growth. Your body’s stress response was actually designed to be useful. 

Why Your Stress Response Was Designed

The stress response, believe it or not, was designed to focus you,” says Dr. Huberman.

Stress focuses your visual and auditory attention on a particular location in space. Your body will then follow those heightened senses. For example, a person will have a heightened ability to track something that they perceive as a threat. 

Your ability to think clearly on a single task much faster is also increased during stress. It also focuses you by limiting your ability to think about many things at once. 

Stress was not designed to make you uncomfortable or hurt you. The problem is that we have evolved to read the release of adrenaline during stressful situations as agitation. Because we don’t like this feeling, we fight it. Yet agitation serves a very practical purpose. “Agitation was designed to get you to move,” Dr. Huberman says. 

We need that positive stress to keep us motivated when we are walking, running, writing—for any activity where agitation can be the jumping off point for getting us into flow. 

You have to learn to reframe the stress feeling. If you currently get frustrated when you feel an adrenaline release, you won’t get the positive effects from it. Instead, think of it as fuel or energy to get you to move down a track. 

Steven Kotler often talks about an example of positive stress from mountain biking. When a mountain biker first drops into a single-track through the forest after riding through an open field, the closeness of the new surroundings changes the rider’s field of vision dramatically. This sudden vision compression combined with the heightened senses that come from the onset of a little bit of fear and positive stress, drives the rider into flow very quickly. It enhances their physical and mental abilities at the moment that the most skill is needed. 

Using the stress response to your advantage will level up your game. When framed correctly, stress is not experienced as agitation or a hindrance to performance, but a superpower and performance enhancer. 

Tips to Improve Performance in Stressful Situations

In order to make the best productive use of positive stress, you need to commit to a few ways of working. 

  • Unitasking—focusing on only one thing at a time is crucial for getting the most done in a stressful environment. 
  • Avoiding distractions—this also goes back to focus. You want to be able to apply your heightened senses to the task at hand. If your phone is going off, or other people are bringing your attention away from what you’re supposed to be doing, you won’t perform well in a stressful situation. 
  • Tackle fear like a Navy SEAL—see below for former SEAL officer Rich Diviney’s approach to overcoming fear in any environment. 

It’s interesting that what many people perceive as stress is often just the overwhelm of trying to do too much at once. 

In the podcast episode, the experts talk about thinking of your phone or tech devices as an additional brain area (with its stored memory, files, and applications). 

Performance gets diminished when people allow their nervous system to be controlled by this external brain, instead of using their real brains where the nervous system was designed to be controlled. 

It can become very hard to perform in stressful situations where fear is involved, but there is a tip for overcoming that as well. 

Navy Seals like Rich Diviney learn through their training that fear is anxiety plus uncertainty

Anxiety without uncertainty may be the stress from giving a presentation at work. Uncertainty without anxiety is something we are eagerly anticipating, like the way a child feels on Christmas eve. 

The goal then, for overcoming fear is to try and remove one of the ingredients—either anxiety or uncertainty. Anxiety is probably the easiest to tackle because it is internal. Uncertainty often comes from external sources, so it is a lot harder to control. 

Diviney says, “What SEALS do is we look at an environment and we immediately as ourselves ‘what can we control and what can we become certain about?’”

Break down the elements of any stressful situation and “chunk” them into items that you can be certain about. Things you already know. By recognizing what you already know and understand, uncertainty in a stressful situation goes down from 100% to 50% or lower. 

Managing stress comes down to having the right mindset and training. 

For more insights and tips on turning positive stress into optimal performance, listen to the entire podcast episode here.

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