Peak performance and stress

Stress damages the prospect of peak performance? Or does it?.  As we will see - it depends.  Conventional wisdom suggests that we need some stress to perform but the devil is in the detail. What do we mean by a little stress anyway? Is there a universal measure of stress? It's something that people often say but in practical terms its hard to pin down the significance of this to you and I.

There have been many definitions of stress but most are framed in terms of causes and context rather than results.  What I mean by that, is we could take two people and place them in exactly the same so called "stressful" situation and we would get widely different responses.  We could get a strong stress response (heart rate rises, increased blood pressure, change in breathing pattern etc) in one person and meanwhile the other person remains unperturbed. 

This implies that the mind and how we think or feel about a situation can be a strong driver in how we respond to situations.  We are all different.  Can you imagine how this matters for people interested in high performance whether in sport, business or any form of performance art.

In business I see managers imposing stress on their underlings in the belief that stress motivates people - these managers can often be reluctant to reduce the stress they impose in the belief that this will undermine productivity.  A Scottish entrepreneur of my acquaintance believes in the "carrot and stick" approach to staff motivation - and the carrot is just that he uses the stick less often. 

I once worked with a world renowned entrepreneur who basically motivated himself by imagining letting himself, his family, his workers  - down. He used fear as a personal motivator.  Not a wise health choice!

Some of this thinking has been around for a 100 years.  The Yerkes–Dodson law describes an empirical relationship between arousal and performance, originally developed by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson way back in 1908. The law dictates that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal, but only up to a point.

Yerkes–Dodson law linking stress and performance

Yerkes–Dodson law linking stress and performance

When levels of arousal (stress) become too high, performance decreases. The process is often illustrated graphically as a bell-shaped curve which increases and then decreases with higher levels of arousal.  If you buy into this idea, the trick would be all about "how do you find that sweet spot?" of just the right amount of stress where performance is maximised. 

In theory this sounds workable but in practice what can we do to achieve and develop peak performance?  As we commented above, the stress response is highly individual.

In principle, the physical body will reflect or express what is going on in the mind.  When we perceive a situation as stressful, the autonomic nervous system (ANS) deals with both the body's requirement to manage the state of the internal viscera and to respond to the external challenge. The central nervous system (CNS) manages the distribution of resources to deal with the internal and external demands on the body.

Stress activates our fight or flight response

Stress activates our fight or flight response

The body has the capacity to increase performance when necessary to avoid danger - the often quoted "fight or flight" response.  When the body responds in this way there are some predictable physiological responses.

  • A surge of adrenaline leading to an elevation of blood pressure and increased heart rate.
  • An increase in respiration rate
  • Mobilisation of blood glucose and fats as fuel for sustained energy expenditure
  • An increase in sweating
  • Blood flow diverted to the muscles and away from the gut
  • Increased platelet "stickiness"
  • Activation of inflammatory hormones such as cortisol

This response is natural, necessary and perfectly healthy when we face a short term and life threatening and truly stressful situation.  However when this response is activated inappropriately and repeatedly it is both damaging in the short term to our performance (forget peak performance) and in the long term it's damaging to our health. It leads to cancers, heart attacks and strokes. Not at all desirable.

What is worthy of note is that the brain will activate the stress response when told to by the mind - it doesn't actually matter that the stressor does not actually exist other than in the mind of the individual.

For athletes striving for peak performance or the entrepreneur leading a business, understanding and personalising this link between mind and body is vital.  You see the brain has a fantastic ability to learn.  You are the way you are becuase you learned this perhaps unconsciously.  The brain is not a static calculating machine.  It can be wired and rewired (neuroplasticity) depending on how it is being used and it should not be considered as something disconnected from the body as a whole.

Biofeedback can help with performance anxiety

Biofeedback can help with performance anxiety

Biofeedback can be so powerful for people striving for peak performance because it brings to our conscious attention how we respond to stressful situations. It provides a window into our nervous system and then provides us with an opportunity to learn and re-learn how to improve our response and real world performance when it really counts.  Biofeedback is a learning process now used by elite athletes and sports people, musicians and people like you and I looking to squeeze what they can out of life.

If you would like to learn more check out some of the other articles on our site or contact us for further information on events and courses.