Stress: friend or foe?

Every year, around this time of the year, when outside temperature rises, flowers are blooming, birds are singing, summer bars are looking exceedingly inviting… I notice this feeling of unease, a nervous sensation. As if something is coming… and it’s not winter… And then it hits me, every year again. It is my heritage from university. The approaching summer time has automatically been connected with the upcoming examination period (Damn you, Pavlov!). Even now, more than 15 years after graduating, I notice that my body still responds to this time of year – though, luckily in a much less intense way - and tries to prepare me for what’s coming. This time it made me think about stress and the place it holds in our current society. Based on the stories of my clients, it seems that stress has taken up a dominant place in the way we look at the world, as well as ourselves. However, many people struggle with this word and its meaning. What is stress actually? And is it something we should avoid or seek out to improve our performance?

Stress: why do we have it?

Stress mirrors the fact that our nervous system is activated and that we should change our current state in order to adapt to a changing or challenging environment. When humans lived in caves and were at the bottom of the food chain, stress triggered our capacity to escape from life threatening dangers, like lions or enemy tribes. It triggered our need for survival. Nowadays, stress is no longer exclusively linked to survival of the fittest, but rather connected with psycho-social factors, like our performance, work, relationships, etc. Which kinds of stress we experience, however, is irrelevant, because we activate the exact same physiological mechanism. This mechanism actually makes us flexible and avoids a rigid and monotone way of functioning. It results in a change of heart rate, increases muscle tension in order to perform a physical activity, it changes our vascular system so it can increase the pressure in our veins and increase the speed at which we can circulate oxygen and necessary nutrients, it alters our attention system in order to focus on what is really important and not be distracted by our environment. All these changes are driven by the sympathetic nervous system or the ‘accelerator’, which activates us and improves our performance. Put it like this: stress has the effect of riding down a hill with your bicycle, it decreases the effort you have to make in order to reach your goal. However, it is also very exciting and might even trigger doubts about your capacity to keep your balance. Stress cannot evolve into panic, because then we lose our focus, falter and fall. This often happens not because we lack the capacities, but because we interpret our doubts as truths. Moreover, the meaning we give to losing our balance and falling, is also very important: do we see it as an opportunity to learn and improve our balance next time? Or do we see it as prove that we can’t ride a bike? But that is another story, that I might take up another time…

Stress: the duration.

The duration of our stress response is the following crucial factor in performance improvement. Our body (and nervous system) is made to endure short but intense periods of stress. We thrive in those situations. During these periods of stress, the body reorganizes its functions and prioritizes in light of our goals (survival!). When this period of stress continues for too long, the opposite effect can occur, and our bodily functions are disrupted and even damaged. For example, during stress our blood pressure rises in order to increase to speed at which it circulates oxygen and nutrients to our muscles. Because of this increased pressure, the blood is pumped into the hart with increased force. This is not dangerous or problematic. However, if this situation continues for too long, the hart will need to adapt by creating more muscle tissue at this side of the heart. This, in turn, can give rise to cardiac arrhythmia's, which increases the risk of blood cloths. So, again, stress is our ally in times of need, but if this strain continues for too long, even when the thread is no longer present, it can alter and damage our body. In order to avoid this, you need to limit the time of actual stress by adding resting time or relaxation (the ‘rest-and-digest’ time). This will activate your parasympathetic nervous system (your ‘brake’ system), which signals to your body that it is safe enough to go back to your initial constellation linked to relaxation. The more you do this (go from stress to rest), the easier it becomes (and stays!) to shift from a high stress level to a low stress level.

6 practice points to improve performance during a period of stress

  1. Stress is not dangerous for your health or your performance, on the contrary! (Unnecessary) worrying about stress or your performance, on the other hand, is not productive. Stress arises when growth is a possibility, when we have to make an effort to learn something new. It is thanks to our stress response that our performance engine is pushed and we are actually able to achieve our goals. Fighting against this natural performance response, increases stress in such a way that it’s intensity peaks and the duration prolongs. This disrupts our own performance improvement mechanism.  

  2. Make time for other activities during a stressful time so you can limit the duration of the stress response. Read a book, go for a walk, reach out to your social network (not social media, but actual human interaction!), hit the gym or go for a run,… Find ways to put your mind to something else, in order for your body to recuperate and prepare itself for a next wave of stress and performance. Relaxation and rest during stressful times is not a waste of time, but instead improves the efficacy of your performance engine.

  3. Make sure you leave enough time between daily activities and the time you go to bed. This time period is your exit from the cognitive highway, which makes it possible to go to sleep in a comfortable and easy way. If you go too fast from a vigilant and activating situation to a sleep environment, this will not work and can even disrupt your sleep. The sleep system only gets a green light to do its job when the stress system is deactivated. Get off the cognitive highway through the exit until you can park it calmly.

  4. Take care of your sleep by ensuring enough sleep time or time in bed. During sleep, stress hormones are decreased, which results in a low stress level in the morning. As such, your system is ready to process the daily stress again. Moreover, during sleep our brain will process and transfer all the newly learned skills and gathered information to your long term memory.

  5. Stabilize your circadian clock. The programmed timing of your sleep – wake system is even more important for optimal daytime functioning then merely the amount of sleep you get. Get up every morning around the same time as this will also program other functions of the circadian clock, including attention, concentration and memory functions.

  6. Introduce relaxation or breathing exercises. Abdominal breathing at a speed of 6 to 8 breaths a minute is known to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and increase the relaxation response. There are plenty of app’s that can help you.

    If you would like to know more about stress management, take a look at the website.
    For those facing the exams, good luck and trust your own performance engine!

    Aisha Cortoos
    Clinical Psychologist - PhD in Psychology - Psychotherapist
    Sleep/stress expert