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Stress as a Challenge or Threat

Stress is not necessarily a negative thing. It can have a positive response both in terms of how we feel and in terms of how we perform.
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Stress: a Positive and Negative Response

Stress is not necessarily a negative thing. It can have a positive response both in terms of how we feel (for example making us feel energised) and in terms of how we perform. In this section we will explore how people respond psychologically and physically under stress and what a ‘positive’ response to stress looks like – what we call a challenge response. And we will see how this compares with a negative response to stress – what we call a threat response. We will discuss what happens psychologically and physically in these two states, how (and why) they impact performance and what we can do in order to be challenged under stress.

Stress and Performance

Before exploring the difference in challenge and threat responses to stress it is important to repeat that the stress response that is so familiar to us when we are placed under pressure is both normal and necessary. It is there to help us. When we are under stress we see many responses, including an acceleration in heart rate, pupil dilation, a narrowing of attention and hormonal responses including the release of cortisol and adrenaline. The stress response is designed to enable us to deal with an immediate problem – and the narrowing of attention and release of energy illustrate that. This is helpful if we need to fight or flee but can be less helpful if we need to perhaps think creatively or quickly process lots of competing options – and this is one of the reasons why performance can suffer under stress.

The ‘fight or flight’ stress response experienced under stress is crucial because researchers can measure whether individuals are challenged or threatened, through assessing cardiovascular reactivity. When we discuss cardiovascular reactivity we mean the difference in heart rate, blood pressure and other measures of cardiovascular function observed between periods of rest and during the presentation of a stressor (for example, having a difficult conversation with a colleague).

Challenge v Stress Response

When a person feels able to cope we see a challenge response where there is an increase in the volume of blood pumped by the heart and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels. When a person does not feel able to cope we see a threat response where there is little change in the volume of blood pumped by the heart and there is an increase in the resistance in the blood vessels.

Research has consistently shown that these patterns of responses can predict performance in cognitive tasks and tasks requiring muscular co-ordination, such as sport [1]. People exhibiting cardiovascular responses indicating a challenge state typically perform better. This is because a challenge response, reflected by these physiological changes, is proposed to reflect a positive motivational approach state with better decision-making and more skilled performance. If you are challenged you feel able to cope and deal with what you are faced with. It is not that you don’t feel nervous – you do – but it is the type of response that enables you to meet the challenge head on – if you forgive the pun.

When you are threatened you ruminate, become overly focused on what may go wrong and become cautious about fully engaging in the task – it is an avoidance response and performance suffers. You can find out a little more about some of the research into challenge and threat states and performance, with a specific focus on sport in this video. The research referenced in this video came from research led by Dr Martin Turner as part of his PhD and the specific paper they draw on is here.

Initiating a Challenge Response

To facilitate a challenge state we work on four main resources. These include: confidence, control, being focused on what you can achieve – not what might go wrong and ensuring you have sufficient social support. While there are many factors that can change our stress response this gives a helpful framework for helping a person achieve a challenge response to stress. Working on factors that can enhance confidence can also be helpful (e.g., recalling successful previous achievements, positive self-talk).

Focusing on factors that you can control is very important – it is easy in busy, ever-changing work environments to focus on factors that you cannot control and be distracted from what can be influenced and changed. Being focused on what you can achieve is an interesting concept. Many people who achieve success often talk about the fear of failure – and the positive impact that has.

Recognising what can go wrong or being worried about what can go wrong is perfectly normal and can be helpful, provided these thoughts are a stimulus for what you want to achieve. For example, thinking “I am worried about this presentation to the CEO on Monday and because of this I will make sure I will have practised the presentation until I can deliver the opening few sentences with clarity and precision and then I relax into the talk”.

Social support is another critical factor in our ability to respond to stressful situations: feeling supported by other people  and having good social connections can be an effective buffer against stress and facilitate a challenge state.

We hope this overview of the different types of stress responses has been helpful. We would now encourage you to think about your experiences of stressful circumstances and whether you can think of a time when you have faced a demanding situation at work and responded to it in with a challenge response.

References

  1. Meijen C, Turner M, Jones MV, Sheffield D, McCarthy P. A Theory of Challenge and Threat States in Athletes: A Revised Conceptualization. Front. Psychol. 2020; 11:126. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00126.
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