Imagine that you’re participating in a study that has been carefully designed to stress you out.
As you enter the laboratory, you’re told that you have to give a five-minute improvised speech on your personal weaknesses to a panel of expert evaluators that will be sitting right in front of you.
To make sure you really feel the pressure, there will be bright lights and a camera in your face.
On top of that, the evaluators have been trained to give you discouraging, non-verbal feedback.
When the five minutes are up, it’s time for part two of the experiment, which is a math test. You’re now asked to count backward from 996 in increments of 7 while an evaluator deliberately harasses you for going too slow.
How much of a wreck would you be during this experience? If you’re like most people, you’d be stressed out of your mind. And that’s why stress researchers enjoy tormenting their subject with this test so much (1).
The Fight-or-Flight Response
When you’re put into a stressful situation like this, your body initiates what’s known as the fight-or-flight response. This reaction is an evolutionary adaptation that we’ve inherited from our ancestors, and it hasn’t changed much since our caveman days.
As a result, whenever we perceive a stressful stimulus, whether it be a sabre-toothed tiger or a panel of grumpy-looking “evaluators,” our body will launch the same biological reaction. Stress hormones start flooding the body and causes among many other things (2):
- Increased heart rate.
- Restricted digestion.
- Dilated pupils.
- Tunnel vision.
- Increased blood flow to the muscles.
- Faster blood clotting functioning to prevent excessive blood loss.
- Increased muscle tension for extra speed and strength.
These would be some pretty fantastic adjustments if you were about to fight a massive prehistoric cat. But when you’re trying to make a good impression on a panel of judges? Not so much.
So, what can we do relieve stress in these situations? Here are three very helpful strategies backed by research:
1. Cognitive reappraisal
This is a fancy term that simply means changing the way you interpret certain things. When most people feel stressed, they tend to interpret it in negative ways. And this is definitely understandable, especially considering the bad rep stress has.
But while it is true that stress can have some pretty nasty negative effects, it is also true that it has lots of positive effects, as well.
Studies have, for example, shown that stress can increase the brain’s ability to process information (3) and that the hormones released during the fight-or-flight response can help improve memory and concentration in cognitive tasks (4).
What’s particularly interesting about this is that what you decide to focus on — the negative or positive sides of stress — will heavily influence how you perceive it and, in turn, how you perform (5).
Physiologically, anxiety and excitement are very similar, which means a lot of it comes down to how you decide to interpret the arousal you’re experiencing.
So, the next time you’re feeling stressed out, choose to interpret this as a feeling of excitement rather than anxiety. Your body isn’t having a nervous breakdown; it’s preparing itself for a top level performance.
Welcome the physical arousal. It would be much worse if you felt nothing because then your body wouldn’t be preparing at all.
2. Power posing
Have you ever noticed how you tend to close up and make yourself small in stressful situations?
This behavior is not unique to humans. You can see it everywhere in the animal kingdom. Dominant animals take up a lot of space while low power animals make themselves smaller.
And what’s fascinating about body language is that it works both ways. Research has shown that just as certain feelings makes us exhibit certain postures, these postures also make us feel in certain ways.
If you, for example, forced yourself to smile by biting a pencil, it would make you feel happier. This is known as the Facial Feedback Hypothesis (6).
Research by Amy Cuddy and her colleagues (7) has shown that you can use this to your advantage. By deliberately changing your body language from submissive to dominant, you can change the way you feel.
You do this by using what the researchers call ‘power posing,’ which is a very simple and straightforward technique.
All you need to do is take up space. Instead of making yourself small you deliberately spread out and exude confidence (even if you don’t feel it).
Doing this for just a couple of minutes will significantly increase your testosterone (”the dominance hormone”) while decreasing your levels of cortisol (”the stress hormone”), turning these hormone levels to those of powerful and effective leaders (8).
3. Deep breathing
Another great way to balance out the chemicals that flood your body during the fight-or-flight response is to induce what mind/body medicine Professor Herbert Benson refers to as the ‘relaxation response’ (9). An effective way to do this is to practice deep breathing (10):
- Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
- Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
- Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.
A couple of minutes of deep, proper breathing is all you need to elicit the relaxation response and help your body alleviate acute stress.
How to Relieve Stress, In Summary:
The next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, you can cool off by using the following techniques:
- Change your thoughts. View the stressful feelings as excitement rather than anxiety.
- Change your body language. Take up a lot of space and exude confidence.
- Change your breathing. If your stress feels overwhelming, practice deep breathing for a couple of minutes.
These quick and simple strategies can make all the difference in how you feel and perform under pressure.
- This is known as the “Trier Social Stress Test.”
- Fight-or-flight response
- On time distortion under stress
- Enhanced Human Memory Consolidation With Post-Learning Stress: Interaction With the Degree of Arousal at Encoding
- Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress.
- Nonverbal behavior and the theory of emotion: the facial feedback hypothesis.
- Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance
- Amy Cuddy — Your body language shapes who you are
- The power of the relaxation response
- Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief