Stress: why you should embrace it, instead of avoiding it

Bus with text '#Never Stress'

Are you a stress junkie? Always craving for the next deadline, because you need the stress and adrenaline to perform? You might on the right track. Because it’s true: tress can harm your business as well as your health. But at the same time stress can also be a great tool to optimize your performance. Here’s how that works.

Two sides of the story

In our earlier post we talked about why every startup founder is concerned with stress relieve. You want to give yourself a break every now and then, ensuring that your [brain will be in optimal condition](blog over drive) to make the best decisions on how to run your startup company. And it’s really necessary, because there’s plenty of stuff to be stressed about.

But the truth is: that is only half the story. Even better: without stress you would not be able to perform at all!

Butterflies are normal

Imagine yourself being so nervous before each pitch with investors or meeting with your team that you throw up, every time again. Also imagine that once you’ve done that (and brushed your teeth) you go into the meeting room and give a hell of a pitch or speech or whatever it is you’re supposed to deliver. You do awesome.

Then imagine waking up one morning and you’re not nervous anymore. No throwing up before the big meeting, you’re feeling quite relaxed. So you go in and… you stutter, falter, can’t remember what you were supposed to say… you fail.

It’s not new a scene from HBO series Silicon Valley, but happened in real life to basketball player Bill Russell. Normally throwing up before every game, one night he didn’t. And played the worst game in his career.

Psychology professor John Eliot describes it in his bestseller ‘Overachievement‘ as an example of how the human nervous system literally makes you nervous so that you can perform. As he puts it: you cannot win gold medals when you’re relaxed. You need to be a little jumpy if you want to get over the hurdles of competition.

Stress is not all bad

stressed woman in bed pulling up a blanket

In the same chapter Eliot also explains that there’s a difference between pressure and anxiety, that nervousness is different from worry. We’ve been taught that there the same, but they’re not, he says. It’s something that Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal agrees to. In her book ‘The upside of stress’ she explains how most of our believes about stress are actually wrong. Although it is true that stress could kill you, she explains, it is only true if you have just too much stress and if it’s the wrong kind.

The term ‘stress’ was first coined in 1936 by an endocrinologist named Hans Selye after observing how rats suffered after putting them through some horrible tests. Nowadays ‘stress’ refers mostly to a complex system of neurological en biochemical responses to all kinds of stimuli. A system that also helps us to respond quickly in case of a threat and allows us to focus on the job at hand. Without that kind of focus and those quick responses, we would not have survived in the tundra’s thousands of years ago.

Designed to detect danger real fast your stress system can somewhat overreact to today’s competitive startup ecosystem. And that’s when things get ugly. But they don’t have to be.

Different kinds of stress

When asked if they know there are different kinds of stress, most people answer: sure, there’s the fight and the flight responses. But McGonigal classifies both as just one typical response: as a response to threat. More importantly, she explains there are other responses possible, giving you an alternative from procrastinating or overworking yourself:

  • The challenge response: when you consider the task at hand not at a threat but something you can handle, however challenging.
  • The tend-and-befriend response: helps you connect to others, dampens fear and increases courage.

Thanks to a different cocktail of biochemicals released in your bloodstream these responses don’t damage your body in the way a fight-or-flight response would do. Instead, they help your body recover more quickly and still help you to focus.

By viewing stress as something bad you subconsciously create the threat that causes your body to fight and your mind to freeze.

Changing your stress response

Knowing all this, you might ask yourself: how do I change my stress response in such a way that I will handle something as a challenge and not a threat? McGonigal and Eliot agree on this too: you just have to look at stress differently. Make a distinction between the first physical response to stress and your mental interpretation of it.

When you feel nervous before a pitch, that doesn’t mean you’re going to mess up. Actually it’s precisely what you need to feel. It’s the second response, the mental one, that causes the problems. By viewing stress as something bad you subconsciously create the threat that causes your body to fight and your mind to freeze.

Woman looking in mirror, taking a different perspective.

But if you learn how to look at stress differently, your nervous system will prepare your body for a challenge and help you focus, respond fast, boost your motivation and courage. According to McGonigal taking a different perspective doesn’t even have to be that difficult: a short mindset intervention will do the trick. Anything that will help you look at stress from a different angle and realize you have a choice to respond differently.

Don’t avoid stress, embrace it

One of the ways to do that is to realize that if you experience stress simply means that what you’re doing matters to you. As McGonigal puts it: a stressful life is often a meaningful life. And that brings us to this: what if you were never to experience stress at all? How would you be able to perform at your best? The answer is: you wouldn’t.

Without stress you would never be able to perform at your best.

This is the reason why should not try to avoid stress. Not just because that will probably send you on a road to procrastination and/or exhaustion. But also because that road would be paved with sloppy work and mistakes. Without a proper stress response your mind just won’t be that sharp.

So, maybe you shouldn’t be looking for stress relieve. Sure, take those breaks, relax your muscles and practice meditation if you want to. But don’t do this in order to avoid stress. Do it so that you can embrace stress when it’s there and cope with it in the best way possible. Do it so that you can feel the pressure and use it to your advantage.