Bill Russell may be the most successful athlete in NBA history, but in all 13 of his seasons he got so nervous before games that he usually threw up. Everyone, no matter how well prepared, feels butterflies in stressful situations. Your heart rate increases, your breathing speeds up, and you start worrying about the likelihood of failure rather than focusing on the possibility of success. Your brain instantly tells your body to shut down amid the onslaught of adrenaline and cortisol. But have you ever considered doing the opposite? Like Russell, you can learn to exploit those chemicals rather than suppress them.
Use Stress to: Build a Better Body
You slide an extra plate onto the bar and think, “Oh, man.” Then, you either fail to lift the extra weight or simply don’t attempt it. Why? You didn’t pump up your ego before you tried pumping iron. “[Nervous energy] means that your body is mobilizing resources. It’s getting oxygen out to where it needs to get to,” says Jeremy Jamieson, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “If we think we can address the stressors that we’re faced with, our bodies are going to do things to get us to approach that stressor. If we don’t think we can address the stressor, our bodies are going to try and remove us from that situation.” The next time your training requires you to increase weight, distance, or any other variable, trust in your abilities and channel that extra nervous energy forward.
Use Stress to: Get Your Way
Want a raise but don’t like negotiating? It may be time for a change of attitude. A 2013 MIT study found that individuals who claimed to enjoy negotiating actually walked away from the table with better deals when their heart rates were artificially raised to simulate stress (by walking on a treadmill) than those who reported being less enthusiastic about the idea of bargaining. The study authors noted that the individuals who reported enjoying negotiating interpreted their nervous energy as excitement, which caused them to negotiate more effectively than the other group and even themselves when they were calm.
Use Stress to: Be Better at Sports
Any other weekend, you’d sink this particular putt, no problem. But when you hit the links with your boss, it’s like the hole is in a different zip code. According to research from the Technical University of Munich, this is because stress causes us to assess challenges with the left hemisphere of our brain, which manages analytical thinking, as opposed to the right, which handles spatial perception and creativity. Try “hemispheric priming,” or warming up the other side of your brain, which can give you a competitive edge. Bounce a golf ball with your left hand before the big putt. The study, published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, found that right-handed athletes performed better under pressure if they first squeezed a ball in their left hand, which the researchers say activates the right side of the brain.
Use Stress to: Connect with a Crowd
A 2013 study out of the University of Rochester found that believing your stress is helpful can give you an edge when you’re speaking publicly. In the study, two groups were instructed to give a speech, but one of the groups was told that stress could help them improve their delivery. Members from both groups then spoke for five minutes before a panel of critical judges. The “helpful stress” group demonstrated more effective cardiovascular performance during their presentations, while the control group’s tickers indicated they saw the judges as threats. Not surprisingly, the group that was prepped positively scored significantly better under pressure.