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Stress Management: It's Not Just About How To Relax But When To Relax

It's easy to think that when you're feeling stressed, e.g. about to take an exam, what you need most is to calm down and relax. Actually, it often isn't.

In this article, which is part of a sequence exploring concepts in my Stress Resilience Blueprint, I wanted to explore more deeply this idea that relaxation has a right time and a wrong time, which I first introduced in this earlier article on relaxation.

This seems like a pretty bizarre notion – that you don't need to relax in the midst of being stressed – especially for a stress management coach to be coming out with.

But it's actually based on sound research showing that trying to relax can be a less effective response than trying to reframe your stress response as a form of excitement or being pumped up. (For more on this I recommend you read “The Upside Of Stress”, chapter 4, by Kelly McGonigal.)

I would go further – I would say that trying to relax in the heat of a stressful situation can and very often does amplify your anxiety. I've discussed this idea, which is expressed in the metaphor of the “quicksand trap”, in more depth in this article on muscle tension. To summarise, the key is what I call inner resistance, which is a mindset of trying to reject, suppress or avoid unpleasant experiences. Resistance reliably triggers more of the fight-or-flight response. I've demonstrated this with many of my clients using a biofeedback device that can measure activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the mediator of fight-or-flight. So resistance can create a vicious spiral of worsening stress and anxiety.

The situation can be summed up using the model of the Human Performance Curve which I discuss in this article.

human performance curve

The quicksand trap is equivalent to being to the right of the peak performance point, trying harder, increasing arousal and going down the slope further to the right. This dynamic is the real problem in most instances of stress.

Stress is not really a problem if it's short-lived (in fact in can be quite helpful) but the quicksand dynamic can trap us into chronic stress which can be harmful.

So if relaxation is not what you need in the midst of stress, what is? What resource is most appropriate? Of course to some extent it depends on the specific nature of the circumstances, but I'd like to focus on one resource in particular: confidence.

Take the example I started with: you're about to sit an exam. Taking exams may never be the most relaxing of pass-times, but you're probably not doing it for the fun of it. So you don't need to be (completely) relaxed, but you would like to be in your peak performance zone, and that means not over-hyped.

What is it that makes exams stressful? Usually, the idea that you might fail. Confidence is the belief that you have what it takes to succeed – you have the ability and more importantly you've done the work, done the preparation. But confidence is more than just a belief, it's a physiological state that embodies and backs up the belief – that's what makes your belief feel true. You can say the words in your head, "I'm going to pass this exam", but without the supporting physiology they're just empty words. Accessing confidence means accessing both the belief and the physiology of confidence, or the feeling of confidence. I won't go into the details of the physiology of confidence, but suffice it to say it's calmer than anxiety but not necessarily that calm.

Of course there is a time and a place for relaxation, and the time is when the stressful stuff is over and done with. One of the key things that makes the difference between good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress) is duration. Getting stuck in a chronic state of hyper-vigilance and hyper-arousal is damaging to well-being, performance and ultimately health. If you find yourself still anxious when you're lying awake in bed the night after your exam, it's not a good thing.

In summary, you don't need to be relaxed all the time. Sometimes it's good to be keyed up or pumped up. (But again, not all the time.) Above all, what you need is flexibility, or adaptability – the ability to shift your state of mind, and state of body, to most appropriately meet the demands of the situation.

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