Some stress helps invigorate us,” says Mary Alvord, PhD, “It helps sharpen our minds and helps us think clearly.”
“The problem,” she says, “is when we feel overstressed and burdened. When stress becomes chronic, it can cause headaches, stomach pain, and more.”
So how do you harness the anxiety you feel before a big presentation or event and turn it into a positive force?
In many cases, there’s a fine line between a challenge and a threat, says Jeremy Jamieson, PhD, If we think we’ll be able to overcome an obstacle, we feel challenged, he explains.
If we think we’re going to fail, we feel threatened.
Take, for example, a skier who is staring down a steep, icy mountain. Jamieson says that an athlete who has had years of practice on the slopes might look down the trail and feel excitement.
A beginner, on the other hand, might feel more terrified than exhilarated.
Jamieson explains that both the beginner and the advanced skier will experience a jolt to their sympathetic nervous system, but the avid skier’s heart may work more effectively, whereas the beginner might experience a drop in blood pressure.
Instead of trying to calm yourself down though, some experts advise doing the opposite: Try to pep yourself up.
“At lower levels, stress can be empowering,” says Alvord. “We think, ‘I can do it,’ or ‘I will do it.’
At high levels, on the other hand, we tend to think, ‘I can’t do it,’ or, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ It becomes more about avoidance than acceptance.”
If you’re facing down a seemingly insurmountable obstacle—say, you’re up against a deadline or are preparing for a big presentation at work—take a step back and start strategizing.
“Maybe you have to break the assignment into smaller pieces or put more time into it,” Alvord says. “Whatever it is, think back to the times when you’ve completed a similar task and remind yourself that you’ve done it before and can do it now.”
“When we think ‘I’ve done it before,’” she says, “We get a visual image of [success] in our minds, which is very empowering.”
Fake it until you make it, indeed.
Inevitably, says Alvord, bad things happen to everyone. We can’t deny the stress that occurs after, for example, the death of a parent, or the loss of a job, or the foreclosure of a house.
But, says Alvord, we can be resilient and refuse to see ourselves as a victim of our circumstances.
“Even in the worst-case scenarios—for example, you’re losing your job—there’s always something you can do about it,” she says. “You should tell yourself, ‘I can always find another job.
It might take me a while, but I can do it.’”
“People who are optimistic are more resilient,” she says. “That doesn’t mean denying the bad stuff—it means that you can see the good in the future despite the bad stuff.”
Ultimately, stress can make you stronger, and the three steps here will help you regulate your pressure gauge.