How to stop overstressing and perform better
Stress should be a powerful driving force, not an obstacle - Bill Phillips
There are 3 main triggers of "overstress": Responsibility, uncertainty, and time pressure
Whether it's responsibility, uncertainty, or deadlines, if we react properly to these stress triggers, they won't make us overstress but make us perform better
Working too hard leads to more stress and worse results
First, rest is key. No matter how stressful the situation, working/studying/etc. without taking a break will make us perform worse and feel even more stressed
Second, we need to take care of our health in order to cope with stressful situations
Third, the right mindset is crucial. Instead of just suffering stress responses, we need to embrace them
Have you ever felt overstressed?
I've already felt overstressed multiple times, sometimes even to the point of a mental breakdown. For example, for an exam in university, I learned and memorized 450 PowerPoint slides word-by-word. It felt awful to waste so much time memorizing each word. Simultaneously, I was behind my learning schedule, making me think that it was all in vain. At some point, the combination of these 2 factors brought me to tears.
Today, I can much better deal with stress. In my job as a strategy consultant, there are often highly stressful situations. For example, there might be an executive board presentation for which you prepared an analysis. Last-minute, a client might send you new data that has implications on it. Incorporating these inputs and drawing the right conclusions right before the meeting might pump stress levels to a high.
Stress itself, though, isn't the problem. In fact, experiencing stress can greatly boost our performance and make us live longer. It's the situations in which we experience an unsustainable amount of stress and our failure to properly deal with it that make things worse.
I learned "the hard way" how too much stress can be prevented and how it can be made use of. In today's article, I will share with you these learnings - write about why we experience overstress, why it's counterintuitive to overstress, and how you can better deal with stress, too.
Why we overstress
From my experience, the main triggers of "overstress" are those 3: (1) Responsibility - having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone. (2) Uncertainty - not being sure what will happen in the future. (3) Time pressure (deadlines) - having to get things done in less time than desired.
(1) Being responsible for something/someone can be an overwhelming experience. When I became the leader of a student club, suddenly, I was responsible for dozens of student club members. At first, that felt quite frightening.
But it's not the amount of responsibility that triggers overstress but the lack of experience with it. For instance, many parents report that the first child was the most challenging one because they had no experience, whereas, the second and third child didn't raise the stress levels too much. In my case, the first sessions within my teams were quite stressful while the later sessions weren't stressful at all.
(2) Uncertainty can be a huge stress trigger. For instance, when I waited for the responses to my job applications or conformations of key sponsors of the student club, I felt awfully stressed.
Even though we cannot really do something about uncertainty, we think through various scenarios, causing stress and wasting time, energy, and happiness. And that's the actual issue. Not uncertainty but our response to it is what's triggering stress.
(3) Deadlines are a major cause of stress. Back when I was a student, many of my fellow students were stressed because they had started learning for the exams too late.
In my job, we're always confronted with tight deadlines. In the first few months, I struggled to cope with the associated time pressure, sometimes causing overstress. But here again, it's not the limited time but our response to it causing stress - it's not the deadline but us being afraid of failing.
Overstressing - counter-intuitive implications
Stress is an integral part of life. We'll always experience various events - internal as well as external - that put stress on our bodies, requiring us to react and adjust mentally and physically. Overstress, though, can be prevented. Whether it's responsibility, uncertainty, or deadlines, if we react properly to these stress triggers, they won't make us overstress but make us perform better.
Being stressed makes us act. We take things more seriously and stop procrastinating. We want to work more and harder to prevent ourselves from failing. Simultaneously, though, we stop taking care of our physiological and psychological needs: We stop drinking enough, eating properly, taking breaks, and socializing. As a consequence, our perceived stress level and its negative effects are increased (great read on this topic: Peak Performance by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness). Doing more and working even harder leads to more stress and worse results - quite counterintuitive, isn't it?
So, if the stress triggers aren't the actual cause and working more isn't the answer, what can we do to prevent overstress?
How to prevent overstress
I'm a great fan of stress. It's what makes me feel alive. I would rather be stressed than be bored the whole day. Hence, to prevent overstress, I would recommend not avoiding stress triggers such as responsibility, uncertainty, or time pressure but learning to work with not against stress. Thereby, 3 aspects are key:
First, rest is key. No matter how stressful the situation, working/studying/etc. without taking a break will make us perform worse and feel even more stressed. Ideally, we work a max of 50 minutes without resting in between.
Second, we need to take care of our health in order to cope with stressful situations. I need to sleep and drink enough, eat healthily, and do sports to sustain high levels of stress. Only if these checkboxes are marked, we can perform best and feel well.
Third, the right mindset is crucial. Instead of just suffering stress responses, we need to embrace them. Our heart is beating stronger? Our breath is faster? Our palms are sweaty? That's our body telling us that the situation is very serious so that we can do our best to beat the challenge. We need to be grateful for these stress responses since they will make us perform better. Just reframing them can greatly boost both our well-being and performance.