There you are, freaking out in front of your colleagues when you should be calmly giving a presentation. Or you’re sweating bullets in the ER, waiting for the doctor to bring you news about your daughter’s high fever. You know that descending into a full-blown fight-or-flight response is not going to help you here, and it’s just going to drain you, but what can you do?
Amazingly, we can actually shift our physiological stress response from “I’m freaking out right now” to “I’m facing a challenge right now.” When we do this, we actually prevent the deleterious effects of a fight-or-flight response.
Our bodies and minds are tightly linked. When we use our minds to “reappraise our stress response,” as scientists call it, from stress to challenge, we can actually change the typical physiological response itself from a stress response to a challenge response.
In a typical stress response, our heart rate elevates and our blood vessels constrict, which increases our blood pressure and decreases the efficiency of our heart. Anticipating defeat, our heart protects the cardiovascular system by contracting. In a challenge (or courage) response, the heart rate elevates but the blood vessels don’t constrict, which increases the efficiency of our cardiovascular system. Researchers have found that when people reframe the meaning of their physiological response to stress as something that is improving their performance, they feel more confident and less anxious. Moreover, their physical response to the stress actually changes from one that is damaging to one that is helpful.
How does this work? Through our emotions. When we are afraid, we trigger a physiological response, which is more often than not unhelpful and damaging. When we are courageous, we trigger a different, more constructive, response.
So sometimes the easiest thing in a difficult situation is to see our physical response as a sign that we are engaged and our body is helping us meet the challenge. Our heart is pumping more blood-sugar and oxygen to our muscles and brain so that we can respond more quickly.
Practice swapping stress for courage now by planning for the next time you’re likely to get a little stressed out. What will you say to yourself?
Now, imagine yourself in that situation, and visualize yourself using the courage response.
This post is taken from “The Science of Finding Flow,” an online course I created as a companion to my book The Sweet Spot: How to Accomplish More by Doing Less. I’m sharing “lessons” from this online class here, on my blog. Want to see previous posts? Just click this The Science of Finding Flow tag. Enjoy!