How to make stress useful

With the right attitude, stress can boost performance

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains how embracing stress—rather than suppressing it—is key to high performance in demanding situations.

Stress can boost performance

In a survey conducted by Harvard Business School professor Alison Brooks, 91% of people said the best response to stress before a demanding situation—such a giving an important speech at work—was to calm down. However, McGonigal—author of "The Upside of Stress"—says research suggests the opposite is true, and people should embrace stress to perform their best.

Seven ways to manage stress in the moment

A study by Brooks published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology tested this theory by recruiting 140 people to give a speech. Most reported feeling anxious, but half were instructed to settle their nerves by saying to themselves, "I am calm," while the rest of the group was told to say "I am excited."

The study found people who repeated the "I am excited" mantra were more confident in their ability to give a good presentation, and audience members said their speeches were more persuasive. "With this one change in mind-set, the speakers had transformed their anxiety into energy that helped them to perform under pressure," McGonigal writes.

Stress must be consciously harnessed

Similarly, a study conducted by University of Rochester professor Jeremy Jamieson found that stress could increase performance—but it has to be consciously harnessed.

For the study, 60 students were invited to take a practice GRE test. Participants had their baseline stress levels measured via hormones in their salvia. Then, some were given a pep talk about how stress can actually improve performance, while a control group was told nothing. Participants were randomly assigned to each group and had similar grades and SAT scores. All were informed of the study's point.

Why stress can be healthy

The study found that students who received the pep talk performed better. However, Jamieson also took a second stress reading after the exam and discovered something interesting: Not only did the group who received the pep talk have higher levels of stress hormones than the control group, but the most-stressed members of that group were the ones who performed the best.

In contrast, higher levels of stress hormones did not correlated with higher performance in the control group.

McGonigal concludes that embracing stress is beneficial not because it ultimately helps reduce anxiety but because harnessing it can improve performance.

Reducing burnout

In addition, embracing stress may have benefits for mental health beyond increased performance. McGonigal points to a study in the journal Anxiety, Stress and Coping that asked 100 students to keep stress diaries during final exams. They were asked how stressed they were and how they perceived their anxiety. Participants who viewed their anxiety as helpful earned higher grades at the end of the term and reported less emotional exhaustion.

In the workplace, such stress management strategies could help lessen fatigue and improve engagement, McGonigal suggests.

A 2014 study in Cognition and Emotion asked physicians and teachers if they interpreted workplace stress as providing energy or being harmful. One year later, those with a positive attitude toward stress reported higher wellbeing and had fewer symptoms of burnout.

McGonigal says the research means workers should "[e]mbrace" their nerves when they confront a stressful situation, and "remember that there is a fine line between tension and excitement" (McGonigal, Wall Street Journal, 5/15 [subscription required]).

The takeaway: One expert says that stress can be harnessed to help improve performance.


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