Human performance under stress
If reading about stress is a turn off for you then take heart that it is not necessary to withdraw from life and join a monastery to be free of stress. In fact, some of us would probably find monastery life a bit stressful anyway. But it is important that we each understand how we, as individuals, respond to pressure and change especially if we want to perform at the highest levels and be the best we can be - whether we are athletes, business leaders, students or homemakers.
It's different for each of us.
I watched the news on TV this morning and it looks like no one is happy. Do events make you sad or even angry? I could take the remedy adopted by some and never watch or listen to the news again but surely we can do better than that. Anger when it arrives is like a swarm of mosquitoes looking for a victim in a room full of people. It's literally thought-less. The sources of anger are many and so are it's potential victims. Where does angry come from? How did you feel when it left you? In this article we look at human performance in response to stress and see how biofeedback might help us learn to move away from extremes of stress.
Where does anger come from?
Some say that in order to deal with anger we must first learn to recognise its source. Often though, the anger we feel in a situation was really born in a different time and place. It comes from our emotional memory and it can be difficult at times to accurately track down what it's roots are. When we are experiencing anger in the moment we are disconnected from an ability to think clearly and we have no perspective on what is happening (deep inside us.)
There are generally only two possible "sources" for the anger we feel. We can be angry at ourselves for our perceived failings, mistakes and imperfections, or we can be angry at others for their imperfections or slights against us. The modern trend seems to be to focus on “external sources”: teachers, parents, bosses, spouses, politicians and so on but that is problematic as we will soon get worn out trying to control everyone else - much better to focus on ourselves.
In the evolution of humans on the planet, the limbic system, activated by the stress (the so call fight or flight) response, was essential for the survival and propagation of our species. Now we know that too much time spent in this primitive “animalistic state” will cause lots of problems; increasing the risk of obesity, type II diabetes, cancer and hypertension. It can accelerate the ageing and degeneration of brain tissues including the hippocampus itself.
The martial arts teach an important lesson here. It is that the only source of anger we can and should focus on is the one within us. In order to understand this we need to look more closely at how humans respond to stress in a psychophysiological sense. It's to do with our autonomic nervous system. (ANS)
The key to optimal human performance is somehow knowing where the "balance point" is - the balance point between pressure being stimulating and challenging or being excessive and corrosive. (See Figure)
This diagram is often shown in articles and books and it seems intuitively reasonable.
When we are functioning well, performance increases as the degree of challenge increases. We feel well, we have clarity of thought, we are seen as adaptable and approachable and we have capacity to spare. We probably sleep well and we have a capacity for effort without feelings of overload or frustration.
As we approach the point of reversible fatigue we are likely to feel driven, restless, hyperactive and maybe overconfident. We can see we are fatigued but we are getting adequate sleep and the qualities for success are still evident.
If the levels of stress increase further we eventually are on that downward slope toward breakdown. Now performance suffers and so do we. We are on track to lose our perception of how things really are. We are bad tempered, on edge and this is when anger simmers within us. We are working longer but results are declining, sleep is suffering but yet we are in denial.
The problem with this chart is that we can't personalise it or even measure amounts of stress in a meaningful way. Place two people in eactly the same life situation and one thrives and the other is struggling.
Many of us accept and live with stress the way we acquire bad habits. It's like making a rope a single strand at a time. From moment to moment nothing much seems to change but before too long the rope becomes too strong to break and it serves to tie us down and damage our performance and health.
Call the doctor?
Prolonged high levels of stress eventually lead to a medical consultation. Perhaps the symptom are fatigue, lack of sleep. outbursts of anger or even depression. If a medical explanation is ruled out then the patient may be referred for "stress related problems". A psychologist might look at cognition, behaviour patterns and personality and start a therapy programme to deal with the symptoms. With luck the symptoms improve but often the problems remain - despite suggestions of various coping strategies.
For example, meditation is an ancient and effective way of getting our ANS into balance but when we are "on route to breakdown" we are likely to think of many reasons not to try.
Medical advice to "relax more!" will very likely fall on deaf ears. When I was growing up I was told that "big boys don't cry" and just to "get on with it!"
Experience suggests that many people do not really benefit from relaxation exercises and a reason for this might just be that we dont often really know what is happening inside the person's body. If we can peek at the body's status this has to ve valuable.
Where Biofeedback can be really helpful is it provides the opportunity to see exactly what is happening to an individual's ANS during both stress and relaxation. Rather than just assume that breathing exercises or relaxation can help we can test this out and directly see how the body responds. Using a NeXus biofeedback system we can for example carry out psychophysiological stress profiling.
By simultaneously looking at body functions such as respiration, muscle tension, heart rate, skin temperature and galvanic skin conductance we can get a clear view of the way the body responds to stress and during relaxation. We don't have to guess any more whether, for example, breathing meditation can help - we will see the truth of it. Biotrace+ software has a facility to record from multiple sensors whilst taking the individual through a programmed cycle of stress and relaxation.
This provides vital insight into the indivdual's ability to relax and regenerate following stress. The client can be shown their response and through this detached view get new insights into how to get into balance once more. Given this information we might suggest Heart Rate Variability training or using Galvanic Skin Response. The point is the client gets first of all awareness and then the tools to take action.
Of course, the NeXus systems are professional devices and not usually purchased by individuals working at home. The NeXus units are used in clinical practices, training facilities, Universities and research organisations around the world.