We have all experienced the feeling of ‘butterflies’ in our stomach, sweaty palms and a racing heart before a performance on stage, an interview or public speaking.

Some people experience physical reactions even when they have to speak in a small group.  And yet, there are those who report feeling energised by performing on stage or being in the spotlight.

What is the reason and how can we harness the energy of our butterflies?

Stress responses – challenge and threat

Stress responses have a real impact on how we respond to various situations, particularly when we believe there are real or imagined ramifications, either psychologically or physically.

But not all stress responses are bad.

According to Research Professor, Jim Blascovich, people assess a situation or task on two criteria

  1. The resources required of me (your self-esteem, knowledge and skills)
  2. The demands (the amount of exertion and effort required when faced with uncertainty and danger).

These evaluations of threat and demand are not necessarily conscious or rational.  And there is no uniform response.  Reactions can range from feeling ‘challenged’ to feeling ‘threatened’.

People feel threatened if they perceive the demands of the task to be greater than their available resources. On the other hand, they will feel challenged by a task if they perceive their own resources to be greater than the demands of the task.

Clearly, the task determines whether a situation is interpreted as a challenge or threat. People can exhibit different responses to the same situation, with some people coping far more effectively than others[i].

The trick lies in understanding ways to change a threat to a challenge response.

The physical effects of stress

Threat and challenge responses have been shown to elicit different physiological responses.  Most simply, both states activate the sympathetic-nervous system but with different effects.

When we feel threatened, our body becomes aroused. Our nervous system releases the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline into our blood.  This increases your heart rate, your breath quickens, your blood pressure rises and your muscles get ready for you to flee the situation.

This is an important response if the situation is dangerous or life threatening, such as slamming on the breaks to avoid a car accident.  We also often lose our appetites as our digestive and immune systems stop working.

1. Bad stress

Once the danger has passed our bodies quickly calm down and return to normal. The problem with being in a constant state or threat or stress, is that over time too much cortisol is released into our bodies.  This can cause a number of unwanted disorders as our immune system begins to fail and we become mentally distressed.  In this heightened threated state, our bodies lose the ability to quickly return to normal.

2. Good stress

A challenge response on the other hand is a positive response to stress.  The blood flows more readily around our bodies and brain, and the increased blood to helps us concentrate and motivates us to study for an exam or prepare for a presentation. A challenge response to stress actually helps us perform well.

How stress impacts performance

In addition to the physiological reactions, there are quite different performance outcomes associated with the two states of threat and challenge.  Research has repeatedly shown that a challenge response results in superior performance in academic and athletic performance, together with superior task performance for individuals and groups. [ii]

For instance, when university students responded to a maths test as a challenge they achieved a higher grade than those who experienced a feeling of threat. [iii]

Research has also shown that the decrease in blood flowing through our bodies associated with a threat response produces a motivation to avoid situations [iv]. We suffer a decline in our ability to focus on the task and we cannot process as much information [v]. It also reduces our ability to think clearly and flexibly and, when working in a group, we tend to be more defensive of our ideas and more willing to accept the others of ideas [vi]. This doesn’t foster creativity and innovation in the workplace.

So what can we do to maximise performance?

If we want to perform well on stage, in interviews or as part of a team, ideally we consider the task a challenge and believe our resources are greater than what the task demands.

I once talked to a talented young violinist about our natural challenge and threat responses and how they can influence performance. He was feeling nervous leading up to a competition performance.  But when he concentrated on shifting his thinking about the performance (to consider it a challenge, rather than a threat), he reported that his whole experience was more enjoyable and he performed better.

Too simple?  Perhaps, but we all know that practice and repetition makes perfect.

The exciting thing about neuroscience is the discovery that our brains have the ability to learn new things at any stage of our life and change our unconscious responses.  We also know that attitudes influence behaviour. If we practice overcoming our doubts and thinking that we have the resources to perform the task, and that these resources are greater than the demands of the task, we can move our physiological stress responses towards the challenge end of the spectrum.

It won’t necessarily happen overnight but with practice we can make a remarkable difference.  And if we still feel threatened by a situation, then we can seek support, information and knowledge to increase our perceptions of the resources required to perform the task at hand. With practice we can harness our nervous energy.

If you’d like to find out more about challenge responses and their influence on creative output, please get in touch.

Elizabeth Tupper is a collaborator at SharpenCIC, an artist, creativity specialist and advisor to businesses chasing new ideas and evolution through innovation. She is currently studying psychology at the University of Melbourne and her recent thesis examined the impact of conflict and stress on group creativity.

Further Reading:

[i] Jamieson, J. P., Valdesolo, P., & Peters, B. J. (2014). Sympathy for the devil? The physiological and psychological effects of being an agent (and target) of dissent during intragroup conflict. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103114001097

[ii] Seery, M. D. (2013). The biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat: Using the heart to measure the mind. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/spc3.12052/full

[iii] Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/xge/141/3/417/

[iv] For more information on this area of research, see Blascovich, J., Seery, M. D., Mugridge, C. A., Norris, R. K., & Weisbuch, M. (2004). Predicting athletic performance from cardiovascular indexes of challenge and threat. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103104000071

[v] Kamphuis, W., Gaillard, A. W., & Vogelaar, A. L. (2011). The effects of physical threat on team processes during complex task performance. Small Group Research, 42(6), 700-729. http://sgr.sagepub.com/content/42/6/700.short

[vi] de Wit, F. R., Jehn, K. A., & Scheepers, D. (2013). Task conflict, information processing, and decision-making: The damaging effect of relationship conflict. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 122(2), 177-189. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074959781300071X


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