Separating Good Stress From Bad



There’s the good kind.

There’s the bad kind.

And the bad kind can get ugly.

How can you tell the good from the bad?

There are some similarities: Both good and bad stress pumps stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) through the body.  Your pulse quickens, your muscles contract, and your breathing rate increases.

The great divide between good and bad is due to what happens next.

According to research by Dr. Wendy Mendes at UC-San Francisco, and reported in Wednesday’s Wall St. Journal,

People experiencing beneficial or “adaptive” stress feel pumped. The blood vessels dilate, increasing blood flow to help the brain, muscles and limbs meet a challenge, similar to the effects of aerobic exercise.

Under harmful stress, the blood vessels tighten.  Blood doesn’t get to the brain. You might feel dizzy.  You might feel angry.  The heart beat fluctuates, sometimes wildly.   Your hands and feet might get very cold.

Stress isn’t something that’s just “out there”.  It’s self-created, as our response to a situation.  Or, more precisely, as our perception of a situation.  There is no “absolute” cause of stress.  It’s what we do with what happens to us that creates stress: good or bad.

When I was young, I played the violin. In the summers, I attended a sleep-away music camp, where there were camper recitals every week.

At least once a summer, my violin teacher “volun-told” me to perform in front of my fellow campers.

Those recitals were terrifying.  Just remembering them brings back shudders of fear.

I vividly recall that as I climbed the backstage stairs to get ready to perform, I could feel my legs and feet quivering in my shoes.  As I picked up my violin to put it under my chin, my fingers felt like frozen sticks, stapled to my palms.  I remember swaying with dizziness.

It was horrible.  The sad part is I wasn’t that bad a violinist at the time.  But my playing in recitals was so much worse than it was during solo practice.

What a different experience that is from working with (and in front of) groups now.  Nowadays, when I feel adrenaline before a large session, I get excited to use that energy to help my performance. I look forward to it.

But truth be told, the stress wasn’t always this much fun.  Part of my relaxing into the stress has only come as a result of the sheer quantity of times I’ve gotten up in front of a crowd.

When I coach people on presentations and facilitation skills, one of their big barriers is the “bad stress nerves”.  My best advice on getting over this stress:  preparation and practice.

The more you do it the easier it gets.

Who knows, maybe it’ll even become fun.

What can you do to turn bad stress into good stress?




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