Imagine that you are at the top of a ski slope, about to make a run. It’s a challenging slope, black diamond—steep and narrow, lots of trees. Plus it’s windy, and there’s that treacherous drop-off on the right. You’re an inexperienced skier, not a novice but not at all confident that you belong in such extreme terrain. Your heart is pounding and your gut is tight.
Now imagine that you’re on top of the very same slope, but you are a skilled downhill racer, an Olympic contender. You’re sure you know how to attack this slope—you’ve done it many times before—but even so, your heart is pounding and butterflies are fluttering in your gut.
Both of these hypothetical skiers are under stress, and feeling the arousal that comes with stress. But one is experiencing good stress, the other bad stress. They are both looking at the same slope, but one sees it as a threat, the other as a challenge. The expert knows that his skills are more than sufficient for the situation. The nervous learner has no such confidence.
Is it possible that stress is not all that bad, that in fact it may be tonic at times?
The key is how we think about stress and arousal. Those two skiers are in fact experiencing different bodily changes. Though both are feeling activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the fearful skier is feeling constriction of the vessels, which makes the heart work harder. The expert is actually experiencing more sympathetic arousal as he contemplates the challenge ahead, but the blood vessels are dilating, increasing cardiac efficiency. But they don’t know or care what’s going on inside them. They both simply feel edgy and aroused.
How to do it yourself?
Just prior to this event, some were instructed about the value of human stress response in high-level performance. They were encouraged to interpret any signs of arousal as a positive thing, a tool that would aid them in making a confident speech. The others were told to ignore their stress arousal, or they were told nothing at all.
The findings were clear. During the speech, those instructed in reappraisal were much more like the Olympian skier, showing what Jamieson calls “physiological toughness”: They experienced less blood vessel constriction and more cardiac output, as if they were attacking the slope. What’s more, immediately after the speech, these volunteers were less vigilant. In other words, they felt confident, not threatened.