That brings a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets” – Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen, bass line used by Vanilla Ice for Ice Ice Baby, which no doubt caused some attorneys some stress.
Many golf fans, particularly in the Dallas-Fort Worth area watched in horror as local favorite Jordan Spieth lost his mojo at the Master’s.
After leading for all three days of the tournament and through the first nine holes of the last round, Spieth fell apart and losing what was at one point a five-stroke lead.
Spieth was, unsurprisingly, under pressure. Most of us can relate to that, whether a student or a CEO.
I reached out to Ross Teemant, who serves as senior director of behavioral health services for the Texas Health Resources system, to talk to him about stress and how it can impact even those of us who don’t have a million-dollar putt in front of us.
Teemant: Some people when they get stressed they get focused and they really are able to harness some emotional energy and strength and improve performance. Other people get those anxiety kind of thoughts, or those stress thoughts kind of spiral them downward. They end up with performance anxiety and that has a negative impact on performance.
Robert Francis: I’ve certainly experienced both of those. You mentioned it helps some people get focused and then some people it becomes more crippling. That can be in the same person, right?
Teemant: Sure. Absolutely, generally when we think about stress we usually talk about it in two categories, distress and eustress. Generally, the eustress is considered a good stress and distress is a bad stress. Or a good event or a bad event, positive event, negative event. Both of them can have significant impact on performance, both with positive and negative outcomes.
I think about distress being a car accident, but we get hyper-focused and into task mode and start making sure we get our tasks, like did I get their insurance card, did I get license plate number, did I take pictures of the accident for when I’m filing a claim.
The eustress is like your wedding day, you’re excited about your wedding day but it’s stressful. Some of the same physiological responses occur for both of those events, if we took just the physiological responses and not the events themselves we might say, “Wow, this person’s experiencing a very similar thing.” But one of them is a much more positive event then the other.
Francis: Is there any way that you can mitigate the impact or change a person’s reaction to stress?
Teemant: There’s several things to look at within that. First of all, there’s some very interesting research that’s recently been presented, I don’t know if it’s recently done, but recently been presented by Kelly McGonigal, who’s a physiologist and stress guru at Stanford University. She says stress is not about the type of stress that we have, but about our beliefs about stress. I thought that was kind of an interesting look at it. Some of the research that’s presented really goes into that saying, when people have a belief that stress can do positive things, their physiological responses are their heart rate increases. They don’t have the same physical or physiological responses as those that have a different belief about stress.
Again, the research on it was pretty fascinating and looking at the heart specifically and some of the blood vessels related to beliefs about stress and stress events where the blood vessels would constrict when the belief about stress is that stress is bad.
The heart rate would go up for both, but the blood vessels would not restrict in those when the belief is that stress is something that can help me or that it can be good. She made an interesting comment related to all of that. She said, “It is better for your health to chase meaning than trying to avoid discomfort.”
As we look at the whole Masters scenario, that chasing meaning verses avoiding discomfort. I can think about myself on a golf course and what goes through my mind when I hit a shot into the water or hit a shot fat or thin, and think about, “Okay, I’m worried about this discomfort and what this is going to look like for the people I’m playing with, maybe a little bit more than, I’m chasing that next meaning related to all of it.”
Francis: Chase, by that you mean basically focusing on your goal instead of?
Teemant: Yes, I think focusing on your goal. What is it that I want to accomplish out of a situation? You talked about how can we change the way we interact or mitigate that impact. You know, if I’m focusing on, here’s the goal, the goal is to complete my workday or the goal is to score, for me score under a 90, I don’t know. When I’m focused more on that goal, than focusing on what’s going to happen if I have a bad swing or what’s going to happen if I don’t. So, here’s what my goal is and I’m going to chase that, that’s something meaningful for me and it changes the way we look at situations.
Some coping things that we can do for all of that, obviously evaluate and change our beliefs about stress and whether it’s useful or not useful in our life. Using some mindfulness or relaxation tecand being in the moment. Having played sports competitively in my life, looking at visualization is something that’s really helpful. Picturing the moment and the event. Then one of the things again that Kelly McGonigal points out is that actually helping others and showing that you care about others, changes the stress interaction. Which was another thing I thought was very interesting. The more we socially connect to others, she talked about oxytocin, which is a stress hormone and most people think about that as the ‘cuddle hormone’ or connects you socially to people and interactively to people. It shows that as we help others and show that we care, our ability to interact with stress changes. The impact of stress on our life changes.
Francis: What about people in which it develops into a crippling, where they really can’t take any action at all. It almost becomes depression or something.
Teemant: Yeah, I certainly think that we often see, the word we use for this a co-morbid occurrence of anxiety and depression. Certainly, when we think about stress and stress un-managed can certainly look like anxious thoughts and anxious participation in activity and it can be debilitating. It really can change the way that somebody interacts with their world. Earlier, I talked about that distress of a car accident and you think about an individual who has a car accident and now what happens as they drive in the future, right? “Am I going to have another car accident? That was a terrible event for me to go through.” And it really starts becoming this stressful event that occurred, which was an accident. Now becomes this mindset about how I view driving in general versus, for how many years did you drive without an accident. Now all of a sudden that there has been that event, it debilitates our ability to participate in similar events in a meaningful way.
Now, that doesn’t happen for everybody, you know? I think that individuals that are used to being in high pressure situations, I think about athletes like Michael Jordan or Jordan Spieth, my guess is that this is water under the bridge for them. Right? Here’s an event that occurred, it’s time to move on the next tournament’s coming, the next game is coming up and it’s time for me to move on and do the next thing. I can’t go back and change the shots that I hit or the defense that I played, or the score that I had and so we just go on to the next tournament.
Francis: Are people taking a different look at stress and how to deal with it, or what its impacts are?
Teemant: I really think that we’re going to have to. Yes, there are researchers out there and individuals out there that are looking at different ways of managing stress. But I think, generally, as a society we’ve gotten tied into social media and social media never shuts down, social media never turns off. The unfortunate part about that is neither do the negative comments or the challenges that can come through social media. So, we’re constantly bombarded with the good, the bad and the ugly. I think it’s going to force individuals to say, “How can I manage this in a different way to not have that impact on my life.” Right? I would imagine that somebody, again like Jordan Spieth, would have a team that looks at the social media stuff, so he’s not necessarily directly interacting with all of it. Maybe he is, he’s grown up in a generation where that’s just part of who they are, versus me, who social media was not part of my life until just recently, right?
Francis: When should people seek some help when they are overwhelmed by stress? How do they know, “Hey, I’m not dealing with this well?”
Treemant: I think the best thing to look at is, “Is this really disrupting my daily functioning?” Right? Has it gotten me to the point where I can’t function at work or I can’t function in my interpersonal relationships or I’m not enjoying my hobbies, right? I’m not sleeping well, my appetites have changed, I’ve got poor focus. It’s those kind of things that when we’re affected by those types of things, that we begin starting to take a look at it and saying, “You know, maybe this is something beyond a stressful event and my interaction to that stressful event, but it’s turned into something more, or it’s triggered something grander than just the stress event itself.”
Francis: All right, anything else that you think people should know about?
There’s some people that get into a negative internal feedback loop anytime there’s a stressful event or anytime there’s an event that occurs that does not have the outcome that they wanted. Again, I can’t speak specific to Jordan Spieth, but we’ve seen it in the professional world. Where you got somebody who’s expected, might get drafted high in an NFL draft or might be a number one golfer in the world and the expectation is this and when that pressure is there, we don’t hear about them again or we hear that they’ve cratered and are no longer playing events or no longer getting signed for contracts.
We’ve seen that time after time. I could probably name 10 or 12 individuals, but I won’t. But we probably could as we talk about it, that they weren’t able to handle those stress events in a productive way and it spiraled them downwards rather than driver their performance upwards, right?
Francis: This sort of relates to Jordan Spieth, but I’ve certainly seen this a lot too and you wonder about this, even about pop personalities. There seem to be a lot of very young ones getting very successful, very quickly. Jordan’s 22, I think. Does age play a role in this?
Teemant: Yeah, I do think there is some perspective that comes with age. I think that can be looked at in two ways as well. You might get somebody who’s, we’ll just use golf, who’s an older golfer that’s played lots and lots of tournaments and was back and says, “I won some and I’ve lost some. That’s just kind of how it goes.” Versus the younger person who is in first, second, third year of playing, that maybe isn’t used to that kind of thing. But then on the other side of it as well, we talked about that social media earlier and the challenges that come into play with social media, where your younger player probably understands the dynamics of that immediate feedback better than the older player, and so I think that can be seen from both sides of it.
To see Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk on stress: