Experts warn us constantly about the dangers of stress—but how are we to mitigate that stress? Learn techniques from Louis S. Csoka, Ph.D., the founder of West Point’s Center for Enhanced Performance (and a retired Colonel of the United States Army himself), the creator of the first ever Peak Performance Center for a Fortune 500 company, and now the author of WHEN THE PRESSURE’S ON: The Secret to Winning When You Can’t Afford to Lose (AMACOM May 2016).
Rule #1: Know What You Can and Cannot Control
Ultimately the only thing you can directly control is what you think, say, and do. Trying to do otherwise will only lead to frustration and much wasted effort and energy without an impact on improving performance. We delude ourselves into thinking and even wanting to control others. But you really cannot! People always have the choice of refusing to do what you want, even under threat of harm. Imagine how much better you could be if you were to put all your effort and energy into things over which you have control, rather than wasting them on what you cannot control.
Rule #2: Stress is All About Perception and Reinterpreting
Our stress levels have much to do with how we perceive the events of the day. It is not what happens to you that really matters, but how you think about what happens to you. If you want to achieve your personal best, you must deliberately reinterpret your situation even to the point of embracing the stress response as somehow being beneficial. This is not about deceiving yourself or looking through rose-colored glasses. It is about looking for something potentially good in a situation.
Rule #3: Stress is Cumulative—a “Use It or Lose It” Plan for Recovery
A certain amount of stress is actually beneficial. It allows for activation and arousal so that energy is gained for the moment. The right amount of stress and energy actually helps you focus sharper, think clearer, decide better, and perform at the level for which you have prepared yourself. The real harm from stress is when it is continuous and unmitigated. You can manage your daily stress by using it as energy for exercising and losing it by engaging in relaxation exercises. Who hasn’t felt better from exercise after a long, hard day, especially if it was also stress filled? The release of endorphins and other feel-good hormones dissipates the stress and gives temporary relief.
Rule #4: Develop an Awareness of the Inevitable Parasympathetic Backlash
Powerful weariness and tiredness after long hours of work can occur even before we recognize it as affecting our performance. Another sign is that the mind wants to slow down in attention. Thinking patterns become less coordinated and logical, our memory is affected, and decision making becomes unreliable and confused. This occurs when the parasympathetic system (the part of our nervous system that is there to bring us back to a balanced, calm, and collected state) overreacts as a result of prolonged activation of the sympathetic nervous system. In other words, in conditions of prolonged stress where our nervous system finally says enough is enough, the brain overreacts and, as a result, diminishes the effectiveness of many of the faculties needed to function at our best. You need to be aware of this and recognize the signs, especially in periods of high stress. A parasympathetic backlash rarely occurs for people who have mastered stress management techniques and are able to control their responses to various forms of stressors.
Rule #5: Learn to Self-Regulate Through Relaxation and Physiological Control
This is about learning relaxation techniques that have been very effective in triggering the relaxation response. It is about training yourself to voluntarily control psycho-physiological mechanisms that are fundamentally wired to be involuntary. Because you can learn to control these responses—heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, perspiration, surface temperature, and so on—lie detector tests are not admissible in court. Lie detectors measure the same physiological responses. Learning relaxation techniques gives you a counterbalance to sympathetic nervous system functions.
Adapted from WHEN THE PRESSURE’S ON: The Secret to Winning When You Can’t Afford to Lose by Louis S. Csoka (AMACOM May 2016).
LOUIS S. CSOKA, PH.D. has specialized in teaching performance under pressure for more than 30 years. He is President of Apex Performance, which trains clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to professional athletes. As a Professor of Psychology & Leadership at West Point, he adapted sports psychology to the demands of the military and founded the school’s pioneering Center for Enhanced Performance.