How you can channel stress into a super power


As a young musician in the '90s playing in the artistic corners of Brisbane's Valley music venues, I found myself with a lot of waiting time between gigs - which often turned into a few rounds of pool with the locals.

I was a bit of an introvert, so a few beers to calm the nerves and embolden the mind seemed to dramatically improve my performance. However, as soon as I started on a third beer, my ability to slot a ball in the corner pocket dramatically diminished.

As it turns out, this performance curve is something that has been studied quite a bit in psychology, particularly in relation to suppressants and stimulants, such as alcohol and caffeine.

how to make stress your super power

A little bit of alcohol suppresses the nerves, lowers inhibition and increases focus. Too much and you lose peripheral vision, cognition decreases and coordination becomes more problematic.

Caffeine follows a similar curve, albeit as a stimulant rather than a suppressant. A little coffee and we become faster and sharper, too much and we can "over-cook" our brains, becoming overwhelmed and less focused.

Scientifically, alcohol and caffeine are simply chemicals, and as our brains are powered by chemical and electric reactions, it stands to reason that they will have an influence on our cognition and performance when we ingest them.

Interestingly, our body has its own natural chemical simulants that work in much the same way. One of these stimulants is known as stress.

A little bit of anxiety about the future or stress about the present and our brain becomes more active, faster, more alert. The occasional bout is common. Too much, however, and our performance begins to deteriorate, and we get bogged down in overwhelm, rumination, distraction and fear. Such a condition, or anxiety disorder, is a mental illness that can have a debilitating impact.

Fortunately, though, we have more control over our response (anxiety) to external stressors than we realise. With practice we can dial it up and down to put our brains in an optimal state of alertness to respond to a stressful situation.

Extensive psychological studies, like the Dunedin Study, which has been tracking around 1000 people since the late '60s, have proven that successful people are those who can better understand and manage their emotions.

While many people might look to understand their emotions more, most aren't as good at the management bit.

Managing emotion includes intentionally increasing anxiety to a level of concern or apprehension (for example, through goal setting, or fear of being poor), which can help increase our vigilance toward our finances or menial tasks when things seem to be going well.

On the other hand, when we are faced with a bad investment or some significant financial stress, knowing how to calm your mind so you don't slip into panic or overwhelm (for example, through breathing exercises, humour or mindfulness practices) helps you make better, more proactive decisions rather than the knee-jerk reactiveness that just makes things worse.

Getting control of your emotions and being able to dial them up and down at will is key to improving all areas of life, especially your finances.

Reducing stress and anxiety when you're overwhelmed is only half the story. Intentionally waking up the panic monster at times in order to snap you into action is just as critical to achieving success.

Five ways to help manage emotions

1. Learn the language of intensity

If you don't have a word for something, you can't think about it. Use conceptual tools like an emotion wheel. Knowing the five levels of anxiety (concern, apprehension, worry, overwhelm and panic) helps you recognise your emotional intensity and then consciously adjust it.

2. Become conscious of your reactivity

Take note of what rising anxiety feels like when you feel it. Whenever you are in a high-pressure situation, or once you've calmed down from panicking about something, take a minute to analyse the way you thought and felt. Be curious about why you reacted in that way, and how to be better next time.

3. Practise pausing

There is a world of opportunity in the momentary gap between thought and response. Creating a moment of space allows your brain to better process the situation rather than simply relying on instinct.

4. Exercise

We all know it's good for us. Just do it. Look after the temple that's looking after you. It's an important part of emotional regulation.

5. Limit the other stimulants or suppressants you put into your body

Coffee, alcohol, sugar, carbs, supplements - they all play a part in the way we navigate the world. Use them wisely.

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Phil Slade is a behavioural economist and psychologist and the author of Going Ape S#!t! and founder of Decida. He works across digital innovation, strategy and cognitive bias. Phil holds a Bachelor of Psychology from The University of Queensland and a Master of Organisational Psychology from Griffith University.