Preparing the Mind to Thrive in Stressful Situations
All humans experience stress, as it is a vital trait in the fight for survival. In the modern world, however, stress can be performance inhibiting or even crippling if managed incorrectly. Before we look into the tools we can use to overcome it, let’s look at how stress affects the brain.
How Your Brain Reacts to High Stress
“When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus,” Harvard Health Publications of Harvard Medical School explains. “This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.”
This communication happens through a release of cortisol, our body's primary stress hormone, which flips our brains into “fight-or-flight” mode. From there, our body experiences the common physical reactions to stress such as increased heart rate and breathing, heightened senses, and a feeling of panic.
"The basic idea is that the brain is shunting its resources because it's in survival mode,” says Dr. Kerry Ressler of Harvard Medical School.
Our brain's primary goal is to keep us alive. Therefore, when it senses danger such as high stress, it reacts appropriately, working to get us out of that situation. This, while useful if you come across a hungry lion in the wild, is not the response you want when you’re about to lead an important board meeting, take the last shot in a basketball game, or have a difficult conversation with your significant other. For these situations, we must prepare our bodies to manage stress appropriately.
Tools & Strategies to Overcome High Stress
As discussed above, the first step to overcoming high-stress situations is understanding how and why your brain and body react. Remind yourself why you’re feeling the way you do when you’re in a stressful situation. Context will make it feel more normal and can increase comfort.
The benefits of proper breathing mechanics are endless. In stressful situations, breathing can be used as a form of self-regulation. Controlling and slowing your breath in these situations can divert your brain from the fight-or-flight response caused by the sympathetic nervous system and transition it into a state of calm by triggering a parasympathetic response. The more you train your breath, the better you become at managing it properly to fit the situation you find yourself in.
The XPT Life app was built to help you train your breath to perform in all situations with 100+ of protocols like the following:
Put Yourself Through Low-Stakes, Physical Stress
Ice baths are an incredibly powerful tool. (Link to ice bath beginner protocol or ice bath tips and tricks)
PJ Nestler, Director of Performance at XPT, invites you to consider: “If you’ve used the ice bath before, can you think back to the first time you got in it? If you’re anything like me, you can probably vividly recall that extreme cold sensation and the feeling of strong aversion it triggered.” This is the fight-or-flight response we discussed above. Your brain senses that you are moving into a dangerous position of high-stress cold and turns on its alarms to keep you alive.
Once you’ve pushed past that initial response, however, you begin working to calm your breathing and control your mental state. You might not last super long, but the stakes are low. Failure is ok. The next time you try it, you will have improved your ability to cope and be able to stay in a little longer. In this environment, you can train yourself to respond to stress. When it is time to perform under higher stakes, you’ll be ready.
Train your ability to remain calm in the ice bath with our beginner, intermediate, or advanced ice bath breathing protocols, and follow along with Coach PJs Ice Bath Tips and Tricks series in the home feed of the XPT Life app.
Similarly to the ice bath, challenging yourself in intense but safe training, sauna exposure, and other low-stakes physical stressors can go a long way in training your ability to thrive under stress.
Shrinking the Change
Break down tasks into smaller, more obtainable chunks. Robert O’ Neil, a former member of the elite Seal Team Six and author of “The Operator" recalls using this strategy to get him through BUDS, the required onboarding to becoming a SEAL and one of the most challenging programs in the world. Robert knew that looking at BUDS as a 24-week challenge would eat him alive. So instead, he broke down the challenge into small chunks each day using affirmations such as “just get to breakfast” or “just get through PT.” With this approach, his brain was able to hone in on the present and block out the high levels of stress that comes with considering what it would take to reach the final goal.
At XPT Experiences, we apply our own version of “shrinking the change” to help people handle their initial response to the ice bath by urging them to forget any time goals or other thoughts, and instead focus on achieving three slow, controlled, nasal breaths. Once they’ve done this (99 percent find they can), we might advise them to take two more breaths, then two more. By the time they finish this descending sequence and gain control of the breath, they’ve probably spent long enough in the tub to have spurred physical adaptation, and on the mental side, they’ll now know that they can ride out the impulsive response to leap out immediately.
Affirmations & Self-Talk
Thoughts influence our emotions, which impact our behavior. Affirmations and self-talk are highly regarded strategies for coping with stress. It’s estimated that we talk to ourselves about 1,000 times per minute, according to preeminent sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella. However, without proper training, we tend to focus most of this talk, particularly in the face of adversity, on negative thoughts.
“While the correlation between optimism and success is imperfect, there is almost a perfect correlation between negative thinking and failure,” Dr. Rotella states in his book “How Champions Think.”
These affirmations are used quite often within the XPT community. Co-founder Laird Hamilton has established an affirmation that he uses when training in his yard to remind himself of his comfortable surroundings: “This is my house. This is where I live.” PJ Nestler, on the other hand, uses the simple mantra: “I’m calm and in control,” when faced with high levels of stress or adversity. Whatever phrase you choose, practice it and repeat it so you can have it in your arsenal when you find yourself needing to overcome stress.
A paper published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that group singing increased the release of oxytocin, which is sometimes referred to as “the cuddle hormone.” Native American communities would engage in group chants to support each other through intense sweat lodge experiences. Another Baylor University study concluded that couples who played board games or took painting classes together released more oxytocin. The same is true of engaging in more rigorous challenges with a group or partner.
If you have ever exercised with a friend, this research should come as no surprise. To put it simply, we have the ability to push ourselves further and overcome more challenges when we have other like-minded individuals going through those same tests by our side.
Quite often at XPT Experiences, first-timers want to immediately jump out of the ice bath and struggle through their first exposure. Back in the sauna, they bond over this challenge, gain courage from others’ success, and usually come back to brave the cold again, this time with a smile on their face.
While in a real-world environment we can’t always perform while accompanied by our support system, the extra push we get from training with them and engaging with them in the buildup to a performance goes a long way in boosting our ability to tackle challenges on our own.