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Using stress to optimise your performance

Stress, by default, is seen as a negative element that has a debilitating impact on our lives; be it politicians, academics, bankers, blue & white collar workers, athletes, artists, performers etc. This general conception is, in fact, quite wrong. Stress (see “previous What is Stress” article) arises when the combination of internal and external pressures exceeds our resources to cope with the situation.

When a stressful situation arises, it affects our performance and our ability to execute our responsibilities. Whatever your status, be it employed, unemployed or retired.

There are at least two different aspects to stress; the first is when the stress is self-created and the individual could have full control over its duration and intensity, such as the preparation of upcoming exams, or making a big presentation. This type of stress is described as ‘stimulating’ stress and is referred to as eustress. The other is where the stressful circumstance is forced on the individual, who then has no control over its duration or intensity; maybe redundancy, divorce or bullying, that is called distress.

Importantly, when confronted by the same scenario, like a job interview or redundancy, no two individuals will have the same experience: it may induce distress in one person yet be stimulating (eustress) to another.

Once stress exceeds our ability to cope, it sets in motion a series of dysfunctional physical and mental responses. These can result in temporary or longer-term disruption of health, behaviour and ability to perform, ranging from impaired decision-making to Post Traumatic StressDisorder (PTSD), and from disturbed digestion to ulcers and heart disease.

Stress impact on performance explained:

A generic representation of stress and its impact on our performance is often depicted by the Stress-Performanance graph. The diagram shows what would happen if an individual is presented with a single stressor while all other stressors in their life remained unchanging.

Please refer to main chart on What is stress article.

Initially, their ability to deal with the stressor would increase, as they become mentally stimulated, resulting in a performance enhancement. In such circumstances, the phrase, “I perform better under pressure and stress”, is often heard (see line from A-B). After a period of time their ability / performance increase would slow down and dip ast hey became worn down by the stressor.

However, the memory, understanding and lessons learned from the experience would be registered in the unconscious mind, ready for recall when similar stressor conditions are encountered. This cycle is repeated and each time our ability to cope and become resistant grows stronger, (line B-D), until the stressor stops being an obstacle and the ability to deal with it has become a learned behavioural trait and we are performing at our optimum (D).

If the stressor conditions are unrelenting and continuous, there will arrive a period when we start to wear down; we would find ourselves unable to cope and the ‘situation getting on top of us’ when our ability to deal with it starts degrading (line D-E).

Unless this downward path is halted, the feelings of failure start presenting themselves, slowly growing until we start questioning our own ability to overcome and resolve the issues. Confusion and indecisiveness take root, leading to potential panic/anxiety and finally mental burnout; inevitably, performance and productivity decline.

This traumatic experience and our inability to successfully deal with the situation registers strongly in the unconscious, arising and potentially being reinforced everytime we are faced with overcoming similar stressors.

Different individuals will have different tolerances forstress depending on physical fitness, background circumstances and for each challenge they encounter. However, the Stress-Performance graph will have a similar profile for all.

Overcoming stress psychologically.

Psychologically, when faced with a challenge, we intuitively involve and initiate interaction between three endogenous factors – cognitive, emotional/behavioural and performance – to assess the impact of the stimuli, the importance of being able to cope with the stimuli, and our ability to cope respectively. The three factors are closely aligned and research shows that the individual’s cognitive performance and decision making will influence their emotional outlook and how they react to it.

Over time, as we become very familiar with the task at hand and how to overcome it, we find that we instinctively move from the cognitive evaluation stage to performance with little effort spared on the emotional reaction stage. This is similar to entering a waking trance-hypnotic state.

The three factors are graphically represented against stress below:

Cognitive-Emotional-Performance vs. Stress

The alignment between the three factors is not perfect with the Emotional Clarity curve showing greater degree of volatility, compared with the Cognitive Effectiveness and Performance Rigidity curves.

Once past the optimum point, and with the increasing level of stress, without any intervention, individuals will lose their ability to analyse complicated situations and manipulate information, leading them to suffer from faster decline in their emotional clarity, followed closely by Cognitive Effectiveness and, inevitably, Performance Rigidity or narrow-thinking, increasing the time for them to complete a task, as well as impacting the accuracy and quality of their work. Extended exposure to an extreme stressor will bring about emotional exhaustion and psychological breakdown.

Intervention to boost performance

With psychological and physical intervention, it is possible to both enhance the performance effects as well as reduce the performance decline caused by stress. Applying all three intervention factors in conjunction will create the desired long term sustainable solution to stress management. Merely employing intervention factors singularly will provide a minor, albeit temporary, solution.

Psychological intervention can take the form of visualization, whilst physical intervention can be in the form of training, where individuals are exposed to simulated stressors, building familiarity with potential stressors, helping to maintain performance under stress and contributing to over-learning, task mastery, and increased self-confidence.

Applying effective intervention factors daily and regularly, before the fatigue point is reached, would enable the individual to start operating at a higher level of performance and continue operating at optimal level for longer. The intervention factors can also be employed when performance begins to decline, to replenish and boost the Cognitive Effectiveness as well as the Emotional Clarity.

An example on how the above can be extremely valuable, is where an individual is thrown into the deep-end by performing a public presentation for the very first time. The individual’s initial reaction would be confusion, followed by panic and, as a result, they could perform very badly. However, applying the intervention factors at the designated points; e.g. familiarisation and understanding of the subject area, constant and regular practice sessions to enhance confidence and impose relaxation, leading to a confident and polished performance.

How Edensgate can help:

Based on our “What is Stress article” definition of stress, stress occurs when the perceived demands of the situation exceed our resourcesf or coping with it.

Negative thinking and the wrong attitude can greatly increase stress,. With the help of Edensgate Hypnotherapy to provide you with psychological intervention therapy necessary for you to:

– develop a positive mental attitude and positive thinking skills for stress relief

– be able to counteract and develop resistance to the onset of stress and its affecton your life sooner and for longer

– arrive at your optimum state of operational ability and efficiency sooner

– be able to maintain your optimum state for longer

– develop techniques that will enable you to control the decent from your optimum state until you have regained your energised state to once again ascend upwards.

Bansi Shah
Bansi Shah is a registered clinical hypnotherapist with the British Society of ClinicalHypnosis (BSCH) and the General Hypnotherapy Register (GHR)

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