How Stress Can Boost Your Performance


What is stress?

In Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Upside of Stress, she defines stress as “what arises when something you care about is at stake.” We all have our own interpretation of what causes stress and react differently to stressful situations. Whether it’s stress at work, politics, debt, a health crisis, divorce, death, or parenting… stress is everywhere. Does any adult live a stress-free life? Your genetic makeup also provides a pre-disposition to certain stress responses. If your parents freaked out in a traffic jam, you might too. Overly anxious about medical test results, assuming the worst? Your parents may have modeled this behavior.

What would life be like with no stress at all?

Really – take a minute to think about it. No tension, no strife. Would a stress-free life really make you happy or would you find yourself bored? Part of the excitement of life comes from overcoming obstacles and challenges. Of course, we would all prefer not to deal with sickness and death. But think about the small daily stresses that can really wind you up? Can you interpret those stressful situations differently?

Research on stress

Jeremy Jamieson, a researcher at the University of Rochester used the Trier Social Stress Test to measure whether a mindset intervention could alter stress response.

Here’s how it worked:

  • Participants were told they will have to give a 5-minute impromptu speech on their personal strengths and weaknesses in front of two judges.
  • They had three minutes to prepare and were going to be filmed.
  • Following the speech, they were given a timed math test. They had to calculate the answers in their head and respond out loud while being harassed by the tester.

Sounds pretty stressful, right? The Trier Social Stress Test was developed in Germany in the early 1990s and is widely used as a reliable method for stressing out any human in psychological experiments.


Here is how Jamieson used the experiment to measure how mindset changes your stress response:

  • Prior to giving their speech, participants were shown a brief slideshow:
    • one group received information that explained that when you feel stressed (body sweating, heart racing) it hinders your ability to do well;
    • the other group saw slides explaining that when you feel stressed (body sweating, heart racing) your body is preparing you to perform at your best.
  • During the speeches, the panel of judges provided discouraging non-verbal feedback (eye-rolling, arms crossed, sighing, etc).
  • The filmed speeches were then reviewed and rated by an objective third party.

The results?

The intervention did not impact how stressful the participants found the experience; they all found it stressful. But those who saw the slides explaining that the stress response they were feeling would help them perform, were more confident in their abilities to cope with the challenge. Those who were primed to view stress as a challenge, not a threat, were: more confident, smiled more, adopted expansive postures, and exhibited fewer signs of anxiety. Overall, they gave better speeches.

What can you do?

Based on Jamieson’s research, we know that you can alter your stress response. Simply telling yourself (and believing) that the stress you feel is a challenge, not a threat, enables you to harness that surge of energy and perform better! For many years, you have been told that stress can be a danger to your health. In her TED Talk, McGonigal talks about the data to support that it’s not stress that kills people prematurely, but rather the belief that stress is harmful to your health. You may not be able to reduce the stress in your life but you have the ability to control how you respond.

Bottom line

Changing how you think about stress can improve your health.

Sharon Feldman Danzger

Sharon Danzger is the founder of Control Chaos and author of ‘Super-Productive: 120 Strategies to Do More and Stress Less’. Her firm helps clients improve personal productivity and performance through corporate training programs and individualized coaching.