Shhhh! Top Secrets to Using Stress to Improve Performance

IImage of woman signing quietf you are like most people, you might be anxious about conducting a workshop giving a presentation in a meeting or speaking in public to a large group.

No matter how well you know the material, your mind goes blank, your fingers and arms feel cold as more blood is sent to your brain, and you shiver as a result. Yet, at the same time, your palms are clammy and your brow feels damp.
And, again, if you are like most people, you say in silence to yourself something like:“It’s okay.  Get a grip.  Just relax. It will be over soon.  You know these people—so it’s no big deal.”
Sounds logical, doesn’t it? 

But guess what—those messages to calm down can actually worsen your performance and make you feel very exhausted after you finished your presentation.
In an outstanding article by Kelly McGonigal in the May 15, 2015, Wall Street Journal, the author highlights the surprising findings of several research studies about stress and performance.
Read these descriptions from three of the studies and see if you can find the common denominators:

  • Professor Alison Woods Brooks, of Harvard Business School, published an article in 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology about an experiment she conducted with 140 people who were about to give a talk.  She told half the group to try to relax and calm their nerves. She told the other half to say to themselves “I am excited” and to embrace their fear. The participants who said to themselves “I am excited” reported they felt better. The audience said the group who was told to be excited was more confident and persuasive.
  • Professor Jeremy Jamieson, at the University of Rochester, published his 2010 findings about stress in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.  He took saliva samples from 60 students who took a practice test of the Graduate Records Exam to test their levels of alpha amylase, a hormone that indicates stress. He told half the group that “…stress…can even help performance” and that if they felt “anxious”, they should tell themselves that “stress could be helping you to do well.”  He also took a second saliva sample after the test.  The half that received the stress tip actually showed higher levels of stress—and received higher scores on the Graduate Exam. Interestingly, Professor Jamieson gave the group the stress tips days before the exam.
  • In another experiment Jamieson told one group that if they felt “stress or anxiety, try to channel or use the energy” since it could arouse them to do their best. He told the other group to “focus on the task to do your best,” and he told the third group just to “do your best.” After the test, all the groups answered questions about their level of exhaustion, and the first group was the least exhausted.

Did you discover the secrets to using stress for improved performances?:

  • Reframe the stress as something exciting and helpful that will make you stay alert
  • Value stress so you can be positive about it—rather than frightened of it
  • Celebrate and embrace stress as your friend
  • Don’t use calming self-talk
  • Regard stress as an energizer that will sustain your energy after the experience—rather than deplete it.
  • Here are some samples of effective self-talk.  Create new ones that work for your particular situation.
  • I’m excited
  • I like feeling charged up—it means I will do well
  • I’m more alert—and that’s a good thing
  • I’m smart to harness this anxiety to keep my brain sharp
  • I can do this—and I can feel the energy of confidence
  • Finally, change your performance goals.  Do not set goals such as:
  • I just want to get through this
  • I just want to make as few mistakes as possible
  • I hope I get the attention of (a particular person)

Instead, make the goal of your performance to:

  • Keep up the energy
  • Maintain the alert level
  • Regard this experience as another experiment and lesson in learning how to empower myself to use stress to my advantage.
  • The brain is a fascinating organ.  It responds to your internal messages.  I find it so exciting and promising that just by changing your mindset—your words and goals—that you can improve your performance.

Maybe a new motto should be: Stress for success!


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