Stress—most of us try to avoid it. Plenty of studies say chronic stress is a leading cause of disease. However, stress is a normal part of daily life. The biggest misconception about stress is that it’s bad, says Terry Lyles, PhD, author of Performance Under Pressure.
“Stress is not bad,” he says. “It’s not good either. It’s how you interpret it.” Lyles defines stress as “any opposing force, potentially limiting forward progress.” Professional athletes thrive on stress, but they don’t call it that. “They call it ‘competition,'” he says.
Threat or challenge?
To perform at the highest level, you must convert your perspective about the stress you’re feeling from bad to good. A threat is a bad type of stress, and it can trigger anxiety. A challenge, however, is good stress.
Lyles coaches professional athletes, including NASCAR and Indy car drivers and teams, on handling stress. He says when you make stress your friend you can use it to direct a higher level of energy into improving your performance. “A heightened awareness and a willingness to take action when needed are essential for achieving performance under pressure,” he says.
Unlock your “stress code”
In order to change stress from a threat to a challenge, you need to crack your personal “stress code,” or the area in which your stress shows up. Our stress code is a mix of tolerances and intolerances based on life experiences, perspectives, strengths, and weaknesses, says Lyles. To identify yours, determine the aspect of human development that causes your greatest source of “leakage.”
“We’re all individuals physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally,” says Lyles. “Each of these areas works together like the four wheels on a car. It only takes one flat tire to have a bad day.”
To run at high speed, all four wheels must be in equal balance, Lyles continues. “In a race car, a quarter of a pound of air pressure in a tire is the difference between winning or losing,” he says. “It’s the sound ‘psst.'”
Identifying the source of your “leakage” will help you crack your stress code.
- A mental leakage will involve your thoughts.
- An emotional leakage will involve your feelings.
- A spiritual leakage will involve your connection to purpose or goals.
- And a physical leakage will involve your energy level.
To patch your leakage, work on strengthening its area. For example, if stress drains you physically, take steps to focus on your health. If you find yourself turning to sugar or alcohol when you’re stressed out, realize that these are coping strategies.
Create new healthy rituals by leaning fully into what will happen if you continue down your stress habits. Lyle suggests asking yourself, “What path am I headed down if I continue this behavior?” Fully experience the feelings that come up. Someone trained in proper stress response will recognize the markers, understand the relationship, and break the cycle to neutralize the anxiety, he says.
“Cracking your stress code is like having your own password to life,” says Lyles. “You get a chance to go back and change it and reboot. It’s all about unlocking the best of who you are.”
Ongoing success hinges on the understanding that the process must be consistently undertaken. “Navigate stress like a pilot,” says Lyles. “A pilot takes off even if there are chances that the wind direction might change. They course correct to go from point A to point B. The same concept applies to any situation that can cause stress.”
Trying to eliminate stress from your life will only make you weaker. “Most people avoid the hardest thing they need to do to become the best they can be,” he says. “It can be fearful until you figure out how to utilize it to perform under pressure. Take the threat and convert it into a challenge. Identify and eat it; it’s like rocket fuel. Leaning into stress is what allows you to face difficulties head-on with the intention of winning.”