You’re likely aware that mental performance isn’t as simple as being “mentally tough.” You’ve also probably got a good idea of what psychological resilience or mental performance looks like as an outcome. When you think of the characteristics of tough, resilient people who perform well under stress, you may think of things like:
- “Just don’t quit”
- “Calm under pressure”
- “Don’t be weak”
- “Just keep going”
But how do we consistently train people to do these things?
In this article I’ll explain the importance of understanding your stress response and how to change the way you manage it over time to develop a higher level of mental performance.
Eustress and Distress (Challenge vs. Threat)
When most people think of their stress response, they imagine it as something that “just happens” and they have no control over.
The magnitude and nature of your stress response is variable and controllable over time (in most situations). A litany of research shows that those who display command over their stress responses perform better and learn and recover faster.
The nature of your stress response is based on your ability to regulate your perceived predictability and control, which changes your hormonal response.
If you perceive that you know what’s happening and you have the resources necessary to deal with the situation, you’ll see it as a challenge – or eustress response. This is characterized by:
- Relatively modest level of cortisol production (typically only enough to handle the actual physical stress)
- Minimizes the physiological cost of dealing with the stressor
- Returns you to your pre-stress baseline faster, reducing the physiological cost
- Keep the executive aspects of your brain online, allowing you to modify your approaches and react based on new stimuli
If you’re thrown into a situation that feels unpredictable and does not give you a sense of control, your body goes into fear mode. This is called distress, which is characterized by:
- Greater cortisol production, with slower recovery to baseline
- Hinders performance and increases the cost and time to recover
- Drives actions based on reflex, and you are typically incapable of learning in the moment
- Significantly reduces your ability to recall information or skills that you may otherwise know when not stressed
Here is another way to think about the difference:
Eustress is the response you want when learning and raising the floor of what you’re capable of. Distress is the response you’ll want to use when performing.
Predictability and Control
As I mentioned briefly above, there are two factors greatly influence how we respond to a stressor:
- Predictability is knowing what is about to happen; what the experience will feel like physically, emotionally, and psychologically and what you can do to deal with the situation. The more predictable something is, the less stressed we feel about it.
- Control is the ability to influence the outcome of a situation. When you know you can influence what happens within an experience, you feel less stressed.
Both of these factors influence each other. For example, if you know what is going to happen (predictable) you tend to understand how much control you’ll have in the outcome and what to worry about and what isn’t worth your energy.
Another important factor is what happens when we dwell on the challenging things we have to face.
When we do this, we generate a stress response all the same, but we don’t do anything about it. The hormonal cascade is similar, although it shifts more toward cortisol than adrenaline (the more costly stress response). This is anxiety.
This anxiety response is helpful when you’re preparing for a competition, but not when you’re sitting at home thinking about that event. Unfortunately, we miscalculate and over-apply the anxiety response quite often. This is costly.
When the stress response runs rampant due to uncontrolled thoughts, worries, emotions, and associations, we lose the ability to effectively respond to challenges.
Goal directed vs. habitual brain function
So far we’ve talked about the localized stress response, but what happens when stress accumulates over time?
We all intuitively know that chronic stress has a negative effect on our ability to follow through on our plans. When this happens, the goal-directed ‘thinky’ part of our brain is energetically costly and slow relative to the automatic or habit-oriented parts of our brain.
When stress accumulates, you lose executive control over your actions and you rely more and more on pre-learned automatic behaviors. You forget long-term goals because survival is all that matters.
This is why learning new skills or changing your behaviors is so hard when stress gets too high. Ever hear someone who was under pressure and made a bad decision say “I couldn’t think”? They’re not making it up. They really couldn’t.
When this happens to you, stress short-circuits the thoughtful, goal-oriented part of your brain and the automatic stimulus-response part of your brain takes over. Again, this can be good when performing, but not when learning or changing your automatic behaviors.
You’re not likely to break this cycle by reminding yourself how important good posture is for your joint health, or how not binge-eating pizza is connected to your health, happiness or other long-term goals.
You already know those things. The old behavior persists anyway.
Exhaustion from over-activation of the stress response leads to reacting inappropriately (an excessive stress response to small stressors) and ineffectively (small stress response when a large one is needed).
Our bodies are meant to work in cycles: work and recovery, work and recovery. These cycles are feedback loops. Each element affects the next, and they build upon each other or break each other down. There is a good reason for this: Training during a high stress period is only transferred into improved capability when you allow your body to adapt to that stimulus during a period of reduced stress.
Learning new cognitive skills (devoid of a physical component) is messy, and performance doesn’t improve much at all during training – only after you’ve had time to build the neural connections that underlie learning.
Recovery and training are independent yet highly interrelated skills that feed off each other. If you’re unskilled at shutting down and recovering, your performance will suffer because you won’t recover your physical capacity or learn new skills quickly. If you aren’t performing well because you’re burned out (or heading in that direction), you’ll recover less effectively as well due to burnout related changes to your physiology.
Adaptive Capacity, Regulatory Range, and Resilience
There are many variables that affect the type and magnitude of your stress response. We call this landscape of variables your adaptive capacity.
The more you optimize these variables to deal with the demands of your life, the more you increase your tolerance to challenges.
As you gain mental tools (we’ll talk about these in the webinar) that expand your sense of control and predictability, your stress response will optimize much faster to changing conditions. When this happens, you expand your capacity or tolerance for stressful situations.
This concept can be tricky, so it’s helpful to use a metaphor:
Think of adaptive capacity as money. The more you have in the bank, the more experiences you can effectively deal with before needing to refill your coffers. Not only that, but the more adaptive capacity you have, the less each experience costs you proportionally. Adaptive capacity pays compound interest.
Your regulatory range is the variability and intensity of the circumstances you can deal with effectively. Remember that novelty and innately challenging circumstances have a much higher physiological cost than situations you perceive as predictable and controllable.
The goal over time is to expand your regulatory range so it takes more and more extreme circumstances to pull you outside your comfort zone—i.e. you’re comfortable in nearly any condition, minimizing the energy you spend and saving your adaptive currency for challenges down the road.
Regulatory range is the landscape of possible experiences you could encounter and overcome; adaptive capacity is what comes from the tools you use to effectively deal with each challenge.
Going back to our metaphor, think of regulatory range as different stores in a gigantic mall. Each of these stores sells a single specific product. This mall has an amazing ‘returning customers’ discount—every time you enter each store, the price of the product shrinks. As you visit more and more stores, the number and variety of products you could purchase with each visit to the mall increases because the cost of each product has decreased.
Repeat this long enough and you’ll soon have access to every store in the mall and each product will be as cheap as it can possibly be.
The interplay of these two variables dictate how resilient you are.
The common root of all resilience is:
- increasing the variability of circumstances you can navigate, and
- increasing the strength of your helpful strategies.
You can do more at a lower cost.
From a stress response perspective: resilience is a combination of your stress response skills and the range of experiences you can comfortably operate in. If you increase your adaptive capacity and regulatory range concurrently, you improve your stress resilience.
It doesn’t matter who you train, these principles apply to anyone who wants to become more capable and resilient. In addition to training special operations candidates, my co-author and I own a strength and conditioning facility.
We train everyone from teenage athletes to 70-year-olds looking to stay active. We use these principles to guide our programming, client management, and coaching conversations.