The stress response is a powerful force that can be beneficial or harmful, depending on the circumstances. This article will explain the science behind beneficial stress, who benefits from it, and how to achieve it naturally.
Performers call it ‘the zone,’ that state of complete focus where distractions disappear, senses sharpen, and performance is optimised. The zone is a real thing, and to the scientific community, this mind state is called eustress–beneficial stress–or flow.
Steven Kotler elucidates the concept of flow in his book “The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Optimal Human Performance.” His work explores how people reach the optimal state of consciousness–a state of mind damn near required for performance at the highest levels of human achievement. Kotler's work is revolutionary because it expands this data into actionable information for us.
Stress is crucial to success in any demanding activity; this may be surprising to some. After all, being 'stressed' is a bad thing, right? Not always. Stress, eustress, and the flow state are intimately linked. But before we can understand flow, we must first understand the stress response and what it does to human performance.
When an organism faces an obstacle, its body undergoes changes to help it survive. Think of an antelope running from a lion on the African savanna or a hungry tiger who must catch the antelope or face starvation. In matters of life and death, the body consolidates itself for one goal: survival. It does this through the stress response. Stress is a force so powerful that it can allow organisms to survive with mortal wounds, and quite literally bring people back from the dead via resuscitation. Stress of this type can be looked at as similar to a nitrous oxide boost in street racing.
Nitrous oxide ‘NOS’ is a chemical popular with drag racers. It can instantly optimise a vehicle’s performance and send it flying down the racetrack. Think of stress as the human NOS button. Inject too little NOS, and the car will not reach maximum performance. Inject too much of the potent compound, and the engine may blow. Run the NOS button for too long and eventually the engine will begin to deteriorate.
Stress works the same way in people as NOS does in cars.
Good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress) are distinctly different. However, both result from the same process in the body. The way a person experiences stress depends on how his or her mind uses the powerful hormones released when confronted with challenges.
The stress response begins when a challenge is identified and ends when it's overcome–or when the body depletes itself of the hormones needed to remain in a state of acute stress, whichever comes first.
The nervous and endocrine systems are regulated in the hypothalamus. This region also controls hunger and thirst. During a stressful event, the hypothalamus stimulates the pituitary gland and the adrenal medulla. As a result, powerful chemicals like epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol, and thyroxine are produced. These chemicals flow through the bloodstream causing either eustress or distress. The acute stress response can be broken down into three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion.
(Note: If the body remains in a state of low-level ambient stress indefinitely–this leads to high blood pressure and many other health problems).
The body first identifies the obstacle and prepares to overcome it. Stress hormones like cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine are released by the hypothalamus and cause changes in the body. Energy levels increase, the muscles become tense, blood pressure rises, and digestion slows.
The body begins to deal with the stressor. Pain reduces, reflexes sharpen, and strength increases. Rapid heartbeat might accompany resistance, along with shaking and fear–negatively impacting performance.
The resistance phase ends; the body has depleted itself of the hormones it needs to continue the stress response. If the obstacle has not been overcome, exhaustion is a state of distress linked to anxiety, cognitive decline and health issues.
The three stages of the stress response can break down into two categories: eustress and distress. Eustress occurs when a person feels challenged but not overwhelmed. On the other hand, distress will arise when one faces an insurmountable challenge.
The eustress response optimises performance and motivates the person to achieve their goals while the distress response only makes things harder. A person feeling beneficial stress will respond to a challenge with a sense of purpose, energy, and even euphoria. Imagine a public speaker who is in the zone. Instead of the shaking hands and a nervous voice that characterise a distressed speaker, they will speak with greater clarity, authority, and confidence. The eustress response turns people into the best version of themselves. In non-physical activities, this is often called ‘the zone’ or ‘flow,' understood as an immersive experience where the perception of time, place, and even consciousness merge with the activity at hand.
Whether or not someone experiences eustress or distress will depend on several factors. What activity is the person doing? What is the person's individual biology? Is he or she using special diets or nutrition? People can actively control their body's response to stress by controlling these factors.
Optimism and self-esteem are crucial for achieving eustress. A person must believe they are able to overcome a challenge because if the obstacle is perceived as insurmountable performance will deteriorate–often leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So how can someone life-hack the brain into the zone? Practice, perfectionism, and procrastination. Many people do these things without knowing why.I: Practice
Training is crucial for those who are not naturally confident. The world's top performers and public speakers do not practice because they are afraid to forget what to do; they practice because it hammers confidence into their brain and ensures a performance-enhancing response to stress.II: Perfectionism
Perfectionists push themselves into beneficial stress, and this mentality rubs off on every aspect of their lives, making it easier to achieve flow. However, true perfection is impossible. If a someone pushes themselves towards and an unattainable goal it will cause distress because the gap between human ability and true perfection is unattainable.III: Procrastination
People with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) often self-medicate with purposeful procrastination, one of the most powerful natural inducers of eustress.
In general, procrastination should be avoided, but its power is unparalleled for capable people who are unable to achieve motivation in any other way. Remember, if procrastination is the result of distractions or other obligations, it will not lead to beneficial stress.
Steven Kotler’s book, “The Rise of Superman,” decodes the mystery of maximum human performance by looking at eustress, which he calls 'the flow state.' Kotler follows dozens of extreme athletes to elucidate the techniques these people use to perform at such a high-level.
Physicality is a huge component of flow because it puts the body under the same primal pressures it is built to overcome. Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, and this evolutionary hardwiring has not changed much since then. Adventure sports simulate the dangers and challenges that would be faced by a prehistoric man. Consequently, eustress comes more naturally in a high-stakes physical challenge, provided, of course, the body has the necessary training and conditioning to succeed. However, it can be difficult to achieve flow in more mundane situations.
Kotler uses to data from extreme athletes to outline 11 flow triggers that can help facilitate the eustress response in everyday people. He divides these triggers into four categories: Psychological, Environmental, Social, and Creative.
Psychological: Internal Catalysts that Drive Focus Into the 'Now.'
Flow requires concentration with no distractions or interruptions. The brain must forget about multitasking, and do one thing at a time.
The mind needs to know what comes next, so it doesn't get distracted by future plans. The task must have a specific end goal so the focus can remain honed in on the present.
Immediate feedback allows the mind to improve itself in real time instead of distracting itself by searching for clues about what it is doing wrong or right.
If a task is too easy or boring the mind will lose interest and flow becomes impossible; however, if the problem is too difficult, the fear response causes distress.
Social: Factors that Improve Social Conditions for Team Flow.
Groups must share a common goal for group flow to occur. Having a clear goal prevents distractions and infighting that can hamper concentration.
Teams must be able to effectively communicate their feelings without restraint. They must also be able to share ideas and give criticisms. Listening is the most important aspect of good communication.
The team must share a common language, both verbal and nonverbal. The group must be on the same page and be able to quickly respond to unfamiliar challenges.
Everyone in the team must be similar in ability and knowledge; this keeps everyone on the same page and prevents the need for explanations that can cause the group to lose momentum and focus. Equal participation also prevents conflicts that may arise when some members feel like others are not equal in value.
Environmental: The Environment One Engages With Can Help Trigger Flow.
Everyone must have some skin in the game. The risk of failure is one of the most important catalysts for team flow because it is a strong motivator. When everyone in a team faces the same risk of failure, team flow is more likely to occur.
The sense of control is both the freedom to do what one feels is appropriate and the ability to effectively complete the task assigned. In order for each group member to feel a sense of control, they must be tasked to challenges they are willing and able to accomplish successfully.
Creativity: The Ability to Identify and Solve Problems.
Kotler describes creativity as two things: pattern recognition and risk-taking. The brain must be able to link ideas together and have the mental ability to translate these ideas into real life applications.
Stress is the body’s NOS button, and this powerful force plays an important role in human performance. The effects of stress can be good or bad depending on how the brain makes use of the powerful chemicals provided by the hormone system. When faced with an obstacle, people will either experience eustress or distress, depending on their mental condition.
It is important to react to challenges with eustress because beneficial stress is best way for people to achieve optimal performance. Flow can be achieved through mental adjustments such as practice, perfectionism, and procrastination, as well as lifestyle and diet changes like intermittent fasting and extreme sports. Mastering eustress is key to unlocking your full potential.