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Are you afraid or ready for a challenge? The surprising similarities

Racing heart, shaky limbs, sweat and butterflies – you’re probably familiar with the feeling of being afraid. Sometimes a physical fear response happens for our survival, but at other times it can get in the way of what we want to achieve.

Your first day in a new job, just before an exam, or making a speech are just a few non-life-threatening times when you might feel scared or nervous.

But what if there was a way to take control of these feelings and flip them to your advantage? What if, instead of panicking and losing confidence, you could reframe your stress response into meaning, ‘I’m ready for this challenge’, or even, ‘I’m excited’?

As long as you’re not in any actual physical danger, and you’re well-equipped to believe you truly are ready for a challenge, this reframing is possible, explains Dr Luana Main, a senior lecturer and researcher in Deakin’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences. It might just be an important key to optimising your performance.

What happens physically when you perceive a threat? 

You’ve probably heard about the primitive origins of the flight-or-fight response, which makes our physiology respond the same way now as it did when we were cavemen threatened by sabre-tooth tigers.

As Dr Main explains, when you perceive a threat or a challenge, your body automatically activates two physiological pathways:

  • the Sympathetic-Adrenal-Medullary (SAM) system, which gives you a shot of adrenaline (the flight-or-fight hormone that mobilises the body for action), and
  • the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) System, which turns on a dripping tap of cortisol (the stress hormone that keeps the body in a state of alert).

Familiar symptoms include a racing heart, butterflies in your stomach, sweaty armpits, clammy hands, rapid breathing, a dry mouth, shaky limbs and mental confusion.

What control do you have over your psychological response?

After the physical reaction kicks in, it’s up to your psychology to make sense of the threat and decide what to do about it.

‘Stress in itself isn’t good or bad,’ Dr Main points out. ‘It comes down to your assessment of whether or not you have the necessary skills, experience, coping mechanisms, or strategies and resources, , to deal with that situation.’

Presuming clinical anxiety isn’t what’s causing your stress, sometimes it’s possible to channel this activated physical response into something more performance-enhancing.

If, for example, you’re a trained nursing student entering theatre for the first time, or a graduate stepping into a job interview at your dream employer, you can remind yourself that you’re equipped to cope.

Mentally reframing what might feel like fear into a positive challenge – or even a form of excitement – can work to your advantage.

What can you do to control your nervous energy?

‘There’s a quote we use in sport: it’s OK to get butterflies, but you want to make the butterflies fly in formation,’ Dr Main explains.

Dr Main explains how to use the ‘Individualised Zones of Optimal Functioning’ theory, developed by Hanin in 1980.

‘If you’re under-aroused or over-aroused, your performance is going to be poorer. You want to try to identify the zone of optimal functioning in the middle where you’ve got an optimal level of arousal. It’s also important to note that each person will have their own optimal level, which may also change depending on the situation.’

Your optimal zone differs between sports (think golf putting versus wrestling) or tasks (think neurosurgeon versus police officer). Sometimes you need techniques to psych yourself up, while other times you need to calm yourself down.

‘Often, it comes down to self-awareness,’ Dr Main says.

If you’re over-aroused, try this: 

  • do a slow breathing exercise to calm you down
  • visualise doing the task to remind yourself you’re ready for the challenge
  • use reassuring cue words to help you focus
  • listen to some slow, calming music to centre yourself.

If you’re under-aroused, try this: 

  • do a physical warm-up to get your blood pumping
  • listen to some fast-paced, motivating music
  • take some fast breaths to activate your system
  • use cue words or mental rehearsal to put yourself in the zone.

In times of over-arousal, Dr Main especially recommends deep, slow breathing exercises to help your body turn down the adrenaline from the sympathetic nervous system and activate the calm control of the parasympathetic nervous system.

‘One technique is to breath in slowly for a count of four, hold for a count of four, out for a count of four, hold for a count of four, in for a count of four… and if you do that three or four times, that’s sufficient to switch between the systems,’ she explains.

How can you set yourself up for success ahead of time?

Whether you’re training for a grand final or psyching yourself up for a big presentation at work, it’s common to feel pre-event nerves a few days out. During this time, it’s worth reminding yourself of the science that shows that anticipation itself is often the most stressful part.

‘There’s a graph that shows in the days prior to a big event, the cognitive anxiety can rise but once you get started, it all goes away,’ Dr Main explains. ‘The minute the gun goes, or the minute you get up there and start talking, it’s likely that these feelings of anxiety will go away, or you will be less aware of them as you focus on the task at hand.’

Of course, feeling ready is directly related to actually being ready – so setting yourself up to feel confident in these big moments can start weeks, months, or even years out, depending on the task.

‘It’s important to take control. Have clear goals and a clear plan, focusing on SMARTER process goals rather than outcome goals so you don’t set yourself up to fail,’ Dr Main says.

If your outcome goal is, ‘I want to feel confident on my first day on the job’, how are you going to get there? Studying, practicing, and asking for help when you need it are all things you can do well in advance.

‘I think particularly for young students there’s so much social pressure to work and socialise and stay out late, but it’s not conducive to good performance. Building healthy habits early will see you through your career,’ Dr Main suggests.

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Dr Luana Main
Dr Luana Main

Senior Lecturer,

Faculty of Health,

Deakin University

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