Stress Is Not Stress Is Not Stress – There Are Differences in Performance

Stress enhances performance. Only up to a point though, then it degrades and destroys performance after it peaks.

If you have experience in any competitive endeavors or regular exposure to situations where there are meaningful stakes on the line, you have experienced this first-hand.

Most people understand stress as something purely negative. It is bad, end of story. However, that’s not the end of the story. Stress, in terms of our experience of it and its effect on us, can be good or bad. What is bad for us – for our performance, our physiological and psychological well-being, everything good we want – is chronic, unabated stress.

This is where it’s important to make distinctions. Words matter. Our terminology matters.

Physiologically and psychologically, stress is really arousal. Your body and your mind experience different states of arousal.

When certain factors are present – external stimuli or self-generated stimuli – your body and your mind prepare for action.

When that arousal enhances your performance, we can call that eustress.

When that arousal degrades or destroys your performance, we can call that distress.

There is value in differentiating between positive stress – eustress – and negative stress – distress. We want to take advantage of one and avoid the other as much as possible.

Perceived Threat, Physical or Psychological

Our bodies and our minds react to perceived threats. You’ve heard of the fight-or-flight response – or more accurately, the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response – and that is the most obvious manifestation of whole-body response to a perceived threat.

When you perceive that something threatens what you hold dear – be it your life, the lives of others, your career, your reputation, your money, the integrity of your body, any number of things – your brain sets off a cascade of biochemical and physiological changes.

This isn’t like turning a light bulb on or off. There are gradations, depending on the seriousness and immediacy of the perceived threat. It’s like a light bulb with a dimmer switch.

When arousal increases, your body prepares for action. Heart rate goes up to pump oxygenated blood to your muscles and brain. Blood vessels in your voluntary muscles dilate, surface blood vessels and those serving your core organs constrict to direct oxygenated blood to where it’s needed immediately. Your perceptive processes speed up, your sensory centers actively process more of the stimuli you perceive – especially with your visual cortex and what you see. Your body releases cortisol and adrenaline to enhance immediate performance.

You might get a little of this. You might get a lot of this.

It might be eustress. It might be distress.

It all depends on the perceived severity and immediacy of the threat.

An unstable person shouting and screaming on the street half a block away rates a slight uptick in arousal. An unstable person shouting and screaming in your face rates a significantly greater increase in arousal.

Stress is Good, Then Bad

Your body and mind’s responses to perceived threats prime you for action. The stronger the arousal response, the more your body and mind are set to defend your life with focused attention and powerful gross motor movements.

That, however, is often not what we want for the kinds of situations we are responding to professionally. Constricted attention – actual and psychological tunnel vision – is usually undesirable even when we have a life-or-death situation to resolve. Preparation for powerful gross motor movements at the expense of fine motor control is also usually undesirable.

In many studies on the relationship between arousal and performance, we use heart rate as the proxy measurement for level of arousal. The higher heart rate, the higher level of arousal. It makes sense, and it’s a good enough proxy.

Here’s what the arousal to performance relationship looks like visually:

There is a color-based nomenclature made popular by Jeff Cooper from the security & armed defense world:

White = Relaxed, base level arousal as when you’re at home relaxing in front of the television or perusing social media.

Yellow = Low-level arousal, alert and ready. Much like your car when slowly cruising down a quiet residential road with the engine at low RPM

Red = High arousal level, body primed and ready for, or during, strong response to a threatening situation. You know you are feeling pressure and that your body is responding to the perceived threat, and you are highly effective for the most part. You get peak alertness, speed and strength here, but like all peaks you have to be careful you don’t fall off the other side.

Black = Super-high arousal where you’ve fallen off the other side of the peak. You are so amped up it degrades your mental and physical capabilities.

Gray = A slim zone of very high arousal for stress-inoculated individuals, an area that would normally already be in the Black Zone for others. This is an extension of the Red Zone made possible through rigorous, disciplined, methodical training.

Training Delays Black Zone Onset

While we typically apply these zones to personal life-and-death situations, they are transferable to other domains where responders are under high stress.

The general pattern – which most of us have experienced playing sports, in our school studies, presenting on stage, or other endeavors – is that a bit of stress sharpens the mind and body. Eustress. Keep increasing the stress and the mind and body fall off the back side of the edge and you under-perform. Distress.

The human mind and body can become acclimated to many conditions. The internal physiological environment consistent with high levels of acute stress – with its particular neural, hormonal, and cardiovascular conditions – are no exception.

We can acclimate ourselves and our teams to the acute stresses that would otherwise degrade our performance at precisely the times when peak performances are most needed.

Just as an Olympic athlete’s body becomes accustomed to the physical stresses particular to their sport, responders can become accustomed to the range of psychological & physiological stresses particular to their realm.

We can acclimatize to particular stresses. To take a public health analogy, we can inoculate ourselves to the stresses we expect.

Yes, training and practice to develop, sharpen and hone our skills is part of it. The other part is that we become able to function well even under the extreme stress that would otherwise inhibit us. The inoculation of training under stress enables us to perform even when our hearts are racing and adrenaline has dumped into our system.

We extend our zone of competence and ability.

We extend our zone of eustress.

We delay the onset of distress.

We develop a “grey zone”. Physiological measures show we should be in the Black, but yet our performance says otherwise.

However, just as an Olympic athlete’s acclimatization to the stresses particular to their sport may or may not transfer to other sports, so it is with responders to emergencies, crises and urgent situations.

Stress inoculation under one set of conditions may or may not transfer to other sets of conditions.

Inoculate Your People

I’ve written before about incorporating uncertainty and surprises into training and exercises. They accustom our folks – and ourselves – to consider a wide range of variables, not just the obvious routine ones.

There is an immense benefit to deliberately incorporating stress into this our training and exercises. To be sure, it’s for advanced teams. Novices are under sufficient stress just by partaking in the activity. For advanced teams, there is no way to develop and reinforce the ability to operate at enhanced levels under conditions that are literally degrading other than to introduce similar stress into training.

How to do so safely is the challenge we as leaders and trainers must face.

A team that has not previously faced the significant stress they will face in the real deal is an untested team. You won’t know what will happen until it’s too late.

Failing to test your plans, processes, and people under stress means leaving only real responses to reveal deficiencies and potentially provide stress inoculation. That is far from ideal.

Controlled, deliberate circumstances are practical and more effective for developing capabilities.

We gain immunity after surviving real disease. It’s far better to achieve that immunity under controlled conditions with vaccines.

Let us maximize our future performance by incorporating surprises and progressively building in stressors into our training and practice. Let us inoculate ourselves and our people to the physiological and psychological stresses we will face in the scenarios we will respond to. Let us extend the range at which these stresses are for us eustress and delay when they become distress.

It’s the smart thing to do. It’s the Spartan thing to do.