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The Power of Anxiety: How to Convert Stress into Fuel for Competitive Success

March 5, 2018

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” — William James

There are advantages of stress and disadvantages of stress, and you can evaluate both by determining how much control you have over the instigating circumstances. Stress is like fire; in measured, manageable amounts it can be quite beneficial — in immense, uncontrollable amounts it can be incredibly destructive.

In the competitive worlds of athletics and business, effective stress management is often the deciding factor on whether or not you stay warm or get burned.   


Sink or Swim

The renowned physician Hans Selye first coined the term “stress” in 1949, making clear distinctions between good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress). Dr. Selye concluded that eustress can be used as motivation and inspiration whereas distress is synonymous with a crisis situation. Since then, the idea of stress and how to deal with it has become an increasingly dominant concern — especially for those who engage in intense, anxiety-producing scenarios. For example, world-class athletes and top-tier business leaders regularly find themselves at the epicenter of critical situations. How these individuals react to such pressure typically determines an outcome of sweeping concern. If they are able to harness the energy inspired by circumstantial anxiety (eustress) to achieve their intended goal, they are regarded as victors. If the situation proves to be too intense for them (distress), they buckle mentally, emotionally, physically — and for lack of a kinder term, are also often perceived as failures.


Focus on the Prize

An enormous amount of cultural importance is placed on professional sports, subjecting athletes to an equally enormous amount of pressure to perform. Sports psychologists apply techniques, like cognitive behavioral therapy, to help athletes cope with the extreme stress produced by such pressure, and therefore perform better.

The premier issue addressed in this field is stress and how to manage it. If you’re an athlete, you’ve no doubt wondered if you have what it takes to deal with huge amounts of pressure. Could you strike out a batter at the bottom of the ninth inning with bases loaded and just one out needed to win the game? Could you rise to the occasion like Michael Jordan and sink a buzzer-beater jump shot at the last second to clinch the championship? The only way to truly find out is to put yourself in similar situations.



Sure, you may not be on a Major League Baseball team or a starter in the NBA — so what? If you’re involved in a sport where winning means a lot to you, dealing with the advantages and disadvantages of stress probably means a lot to you as well. Understanding how you react to stress and learning how to direct it in a useful way could give you that extra edge needed to beat the competition.


Channel Your Stress Energy

An advantage of stress is it can be channeled in a positive way. As you prepare for competition, you can use the energy created by anxiety to maintain the things you can control — such as your physical conditioning, your equipment and your state of mind. If you are not careful, you might misdirect the energy of stress by focusing on factors out of your control, like the referees, the weather, and your opponent’s personae. In the latter instance, you stand a good chance of forgoing the benefits of eustress and succumbing to distress.

The battle to skillfully manage anxious energy is won or lost in the top six inches of your body (your head!) and is usually determined before you ever set foot onto the field. In your journey to learn good stress management, you can utilize smart textiles that allow you to track your stress levels in real time. This way, you will know exactly when the pressure has really set in.

Then, you can harness the anxiety by aiming your mental focus on factors under your direct influence so that energy is not wasted on things that will not help your performance.


Train for the Business Arena

Similar to a championship athletic event, career-related scenarios, such as giving an important speech or negotiating a business deal, can also carry intense levels of stress. If you are to make a presentation to an audience of your colleagues, or if you’re meeting with one of your competitors about acquiring their assets, you stand to encounter resistance, scrutiny, hostility, or all three.

Once again, you can harness the advantages of stress by effectively channeling the energy created by anxiety. Focus on the elements that you can control such as your research, your document preparation, and your speaking delivery. Worrying about the opinions of other people, whether or not they like you as a person and if they agree with your ideas is to direct stress-related energy at things that are beyond your control. This turns good stress into bad stress and decreases your chance for success.

On the day of a big event, you can give yourself an edge by monitoring your stress levels in real time through wearable tech. This way, when you cross the threshold from feeling just a bit anxious to really stressed out, you can be prepared with a list of factors under your control, which you can then channel your nervous energy into.

Another way to prepare for the difficulties of the business world is to adopt stress management strategies of highly effective people. You can put yourself in “time out” like Oprah Winfrey and YouTube CEO Susan Wojicki are known to do. A quiet place to sit alone and concentrate on your breathing can allow you to remain calm and think clearly.

Or, if direct action is more your style, you can work off anxiety in the gym like Michelle Obama or counteract problems with proactive action like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.



Determine Your Stress Threshold

Stress is subjective, and what can overwhelm one person can inspire another. What for one individual may be unmanageable anxiety for another can be motivational pressure. In order to know when you are officially under the influence of stress, there are several physical and mental signs to look for: cold hands and feet, “butterflies” in your stomach, unnecessary sweat, dry mouth, tense muscles, and shortness of breath are all signs that your body is trying to manage nervous energy from stress.

Poor judgment, lack of concentration, irrational fear, feeling threatened, anxious, frustrated or mad are all signs that your mind is becoming overwhelmed by trying to process the anxiety at hand. Using smart garments, you can literally watch your stress levels rise from reasonable to volatile. When this happens, you can practice positive stress management by focusing on elements under your control such as measured breathing, an even heart rate and cognitive calmness rather than worrying about things you can’t control.


Fight or Flight

The above instance — when you react to a maximum level of stress — is known as the “fight or flight” response. By training yourself to watch your stress levels and to react accordingly when they peak, you can then employ the mental exercise of your choice as you channel the anxious energy. This may be pacing around, listening to music, reviewing your strategy, reciting mantras, visualizing your performance or all of the above.

The important thing is that you have made a conscious choice to take control rather than to be controlled — which in the world of winning means half the victory is already yours.