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

Bus with words 'never stress'

In our earlier post, we discussed why every startup founder is concerned with stress relief. You want to give yourself a break now and then, ensuring that your [brain will be in optimal condition](blog over drive) to make the best decisions on running your startup. It’s vital because there’s plenty of stuff to be stressed about.

But the truth is, that is only half the story. Stress can harm your business and health, but did you know that stress can also be a great tool to optimize your performance? 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 repeatedly throw up. 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 not being 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 suck.

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

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 relaxed. You need to be a little jumpy 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 there is a difference between pressure and anxiety, that nervousness differs from worry. He says we’ve been taught that they are the same, but they are actually not.

It’s something that Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal agrees to. In her book ‘The Upside of Stress’ she explains how most of our beliefs about stress are wrong. Although stress could indeed kill you, she explains, this only happens when your stress levels are way too high, and it’s the bad kind.

The history of stress

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 mainly to a complex system of neurological and 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 tundras thousands of years ago.

Designed to detect danger 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 flight responses. But McGonigal classifies both as just one typical response: a response to a threat. More importantly, she explains there are other responses possible, giving you an alternative to procrastinating or overworking yourself:

  • The challenge-response: considering the task at hand not as a threat but as 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 like a fight-or-flight response would. Instead, they help your body recover more quickly and still help you to focus.

By viewing stress as something terrible, 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 so 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. Distinguish between the first physical response to stress and your mental interpretation.

When you feel nervous before a pitch, that doesn’t mean you’ll mess up. In fact, it’s precisely what you need to feel to perform at your best. It’s the second response, the mental one, that causes the problems. By viewing stress as something terrible, 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, help you focus, respond fast, and 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, it 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 you should not try to avoid stress. Not just because that will probably put you on the road to procrastination and 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 relief.

Sure, take those breaks, relax your muscles and practice meditation if you want to. But not to avoid stress. Do it so that you can embrace stress when it occurs and cope with it in the best way possible. Do it to feel the pressure and then use it to your advantage.

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