|Some people thrive during stress|
Today features another superb guest blog on Psych-Your-Mind! In this post Kate Reilly, outstanding first year graduate student at New York University, discusses how some forms of stress can paradoxically be good for one's performance. Read on!
Imagine times in your life when you felt stress – a job interview, a first date, a piano recital, or a championship soccer game. It’s no wonder you may have felt stress in these situations: They are meaningful, they require effort to achieve success, and they involve evaluation by others. Each of these factors can contribute to feelings of uneasiness and anxiety.
The question is: how do these feelings of stress impact performance?
In some cases, this stress might have made you feel so overwhelmed that you failed to do as well as you could have. You have probably seen enough American Idol auditions to recognize that feeling nervous can impair performance (but click here to see some contestants “buckling under the pressure” if you haven’t).
In other cases, though, stress may have taken on a different form. It may have made you feel excited, challenged, and ready to approach the upcoming task. In fact, many professional performers (e.g., actors, musicians, and athletes) note that the stress of performing feels exhilarating and helps them excel. Tiger Woods exemplified this feeling when he spoke about playing competitive golf, saying, “The day I’m not nervous is the day I quit… That’s the greatest thing about it, just to feel that rush.”
The existence of these two kinds of stress has been demonstrated in psychological research. In their model of challenge and threat, Jim Blascovich and Wendy Berry Mendes show that in motivated performance situations like job interviews, individuals can experience one of two psychological states: The state they experience depends on how they think about their personal resources (e.g., their own knowledge and skills) and the demands of the situation (e.g., required effort). Generally, when people perceive the demands of a situation as being greater than their personal resources, they experience a threat state. When they believe that their personal resources are at least as great as the situational demands, they experience a challenge state.
Challenge and threat states are characterized by divergent physiological and behavioral changes. Challenge states are associated with more efficient cardiac activity and dilation of the blood vessels. This allows blood to move quickly throughout the whole body and get to extremities and the brain more easily. In these situations, people often display an open posture that signals a motivation to approach the situation. In contrast, threat states are related to less cardiac efficiency and the constriction of blood vessels. These changes help people prepare for potential harm and are often associated with behaviors signaling avoidance.
Now that we know researchers have distinguished between two different kinds of stress, you might be wondering whether these kinds of stress are related to different performance outcomes. They are! In one study, researchers manipulated whether participants experienced a challenge or threat state by having participants give speeches to evaluators who gave them either positive feedback (to manipulate challenge) or negative feedback (to manipulate threat). After the interview, participants were asked to complete a decision-making task. Participants performed better on the task after they received positive feedback than after receiving negative feedback, and characteristic cardiovascular responses of challenge and threat mediated this relationship. This means that those who experienced a challenge cardiovascular pattern did better on the task than those who showed a threat pattern.
So the next time you are out there pitching for the Red Sox, singing on Broadway, or just giving a presentation to a few classmates, is there any way you can help yourself feel challenged rather than threatened?
According to one study, you might do well to re-think what it means to feel nervous. Participants in this study who were told that physiological arousal is an adaptive, performance-enhancing response exhibited more cardiovascular efficiency and less total peripheral resistance (responses associated with challenge states) than those who were told to ignore the source of stress or told nothing at all. These same participants also performed better on a task requiring attention.
What’s interesting here is that simply changing the way participants thought about physiological feelings of arousal (e.g., your heart beating harder or having butterflies in your stomach) influenced how they experienced stress. The next time your friend takes the GRE, tell him or her that feelings of anxiety improve performance. It just might help!
Take-home message: Not all stress is bad for you! Depending on how you assess the situation, stress can be experienced as a challenging force that improves performance or a threatening one that impairs it.
Have you noticed that stress can take different forms? When you need to perform a stressful task, do you have any strategies that help you feel challenged rather than threatened?
Kate Reilly is a doctoral student in social psychology at New York University. In her current research, she explores the influence of emotions and stress on behavior and the mechanisms underlying self-regulation.
Blascovich, J. & Mendes, W. B. (2000). Challenge and threat appraisals: The role of affective cues. In Forgas, J. (Ed.). Feeling and thinking: The role of affect in social cognition. Cambridge University Press, Paris, 59-82.
Jamieson, J.P., Nock, M.K., & Mendes, W.B. (in press). Reappraising physiological arousal improves cardiovascular responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Mendes, W., Blascovich, J., Hunter, S., Lickel, B., & Jost, J. (2007). Threatened by the unexpected: Physiological responses during social interactions with expectancy-violating partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (4), 698-716 DOI: 10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.118