Turn Threat into Challenge: How to Retrain Your Stress Appraisal and Response
Like any voluntary activity of your nervous system, you can retrain your appraisal and response to potential stress. First, you need to become consciously aware of how you are appraising the situation. When you feel stressed out, consider the situation objectively and ask yourself:
First: Could this situation cause me harm or loss, or is there potential benefit?
Second: Am I capable of handling this situation?
If you’re able to answer “yes” to the second question, you will immediately begin to react to the situation as a challenge instead of a threat. You’ll stop worrying about it, you’ll visualize yourself succeeding, and you’ll imagine how confident you’ll feel when you’ve completed the task.
In addition to retraining your appraisal, you can change how you interpret your physiological stress response. If you’re in threat mode, the adrenaline rush feels scary. You subconsciously associate the sensations of your heart racing, blood pumping, and trying to catch your breath with fear, and you instinctively want to decrease the sensations or avoid them completely. But if you notice those sensations and instead think of them as helpful, you can quickly shift into challenge mode.
Researchers have used public speaking and written tests to find out how changing our appraisal of stress-induced arousal immediately changes our cardiovascular activity, attitude, and performance. In one study, when people were told that their arousal was functional and would improve their performance, they had improved cardiovascular functioning and fewer negative emotions. Another study found that when people were told that their arousal would improve their performance, they scored higher on the GRE-math section—both in a laboratory and one to three months later when they actually took the exam.
So when you feel your heart pounding and your blood pumping faster, know that your body is preparing for action. When you’re breathing heavily, know that your blood is bringing more oxygen to your brain and muscles. Instead of fear, let yourself feel excitement. Your physiological stress response is a sign that you care about a situation, and your body is preparing you to engage and succeed.
Rather than trying to avoid the arousal, go with it. Use your stress response to your advantage.
Instead of anticipating failure, anticipate success. Are you capable of handling this? Yes, you are!