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Why Trying Hard Often Makes Things Worse

In an earlier article I compared struggling against emotions and other difficult experiences to being in quicksand. It's the actual struggle that is the real problem. It's what turns a minor difficulty into a major problem.

In this article I'm going to present a model for stress, or a way of thinking about the mental “quicksand trap”, that helps you to see a different way forward. It's not my own invention, in fact it's pretty well known as the “Human Performance Curve” (HPC). The core idea is that peak performance in any domain happens at a balanced level of (i) physiological arousal, and (ii) effort or willpower. Once you go past this point of peak performance, making more effort and getting more worked up only degrades your performance. It's easier to grasp this point if you see the HPC as a diagram, which is what I do in this video:

(By the way this material is drawn from my online training material that you get as part of my stress resilience training programme – in fact the HPC is a core model that I return to again and again.)

So the “quicksand trap” happens when you find yourself to the right of the peak, trying harder and heading down the slope.

So what do you do about it? Well, you have to learn how to move back to the left. This next video excerpt puts that in context.

Please be clear I'm NOT saying you just have to resign yourself to feeling anxious or whatever, and get on with your life anyway. Moving leftwards is a skill that can be trained and developed. It's one of the key things my stress resilience programme focuses on.

In a sense, your mind already knows how to move left, relax, let go, etc. - it's just that this resource is not necessary available to your “conscious will”. You need to learn to apply your mind in a different way. That's also what my stress resilience programme aims to develop.

Does the notion of the quicksand trap feel familiar to you, and do the HPC model help make sense of it? I'd welcome hearing about your own experiences in the comments section below.

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