Positive Stress: Courage and Connection
“Just like me, this person knows what suffering feels like… Just like me this person wants to be of use in the world, but also knows what it’s like to fail. You don’t need to ask them if you are right. If they are human, you are right. All you need to do is choose to see it.”
-Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress
I want to begin by sharing a memory from 2013. I was warming up for my favorite 10k road race, the Vancouver Sun Run, which attracts 50,000 people, and thus explodes upon the city streets every spring. There are few sweeter places in which to have a great run. The city comes alive, the enthusiasm is saturating; all experiences feel enhanced here. However, I had a problem. Two days prior I’d strained something in my calf doing some simple strength exercises. I felt fit and energized, but pain was spiking when I ran uphill. The Sun Run course rolls over two beautiful bridges. I was stressed.
Numerous friends were warming up around me. I was torn between the desire to isolate myself, and the craving to confess my fears. I settled in next to my buddy finishing her strides, and another wrapping up her drills. I explained my calf crisis. I’d barely finished sharing when, “I have a tight hamstring!” admitted one, “I’m so tired, I think something is off with my iron,” shared the other. We smiled, rolled our eyes at the gremlins of sport, and together breathed sighs of belonging. Despite having to limp up two hills I went on run a 10k PR.
I’ve experienced the process of stress enhancing my interpersonal connections, and the power of relationships to optimally transform stress. The reciprocal potential for stress and relationships to strengthen one another is the focus of this article. Previously believed to cause only selfishness and withdrawal, stress has also been found to inspire compassion, empathy, and feelings of deeper affinity with greater humanity. Responding to heightened connection, great performances frequently arise from reaching out to others when stressed. I will explain these processes, outline methods to leverage stress for the betterment of our relationships, and describe how to access our relationships for the optimization of our performance in the presence of stress.
THE POSITIVE CHOICE
In my earlier article I referred to Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Upside of Stress, where she discusses two primary stress responses to adversity: threat and challenge. Similarly, when it comes to interpersonal responses to stress three primary responses have been observed: aggression, withdrawal and “tend-and-befriend.” As outlined by McGonigal previously, the form that your stress response takes is largely determined by how you think about stress. When we view stress as a threat we’re more likely to experience the fight-or-flight survival instinct, which predisposes someone to aggression or withdrawal. However, stress can also trigger a social connection instinct, referred to as the tend-or-befriend response. This is a response that motivates us to reach out to our relationships. The tend-or-befriend response is just as strong as the instinct to fight or flee. In fact, McGonigal explains that our tend-and-befriend instinct is likely our foremost stress response. Evolutionarily, tending–and-befriending is more likely to lead to the defense of tribe members during times of danger, and is therefore the most adaptive on a group level.
TEND-AND-BEFRIEND: A COURAGE COCKTAIL
Why is the tend-or-befriend response relevant to competitive running? Stress in the form of the tend-and-befriend response has distinct physiological correlates. When we reach out to others during times of stress the hormone, oxytocin is released in our brains. Commonly known as the “cuddle” hormone, oxytocin prompts the desire to connect with others. Additionally, and highly relevant to sport, oxytocin has been shown to inhibit the amygdala, which is the part of our brain responsible for fear. Thus, stress in the tend-or-befriend form can actually increase courage.
In addition to oxytocin, interpersonal connection also stimulates the release of dopamine, which is a hormone that plays a major role in motivation. So, in addition to helping a person feel more courageous, reaching out to others during challenging times can increase one’s desire to take action. The tend-and–befriend response also heightens the body’s attunement system, which is responsible for sensory perception, intuition, and self-control. In short, the tend-and-befriend stress response can help us to be more connected to one another, more courageous, more motivated, and to operate at our highest physical and mental capacity.
Due to the courage and motivation enhancing capacity of the tend-and-befriend response, mental performance consultants like myself frequently encourage athletes to reach out to each another during important moments. Basketball players high-five prior to free-throws; some gymnasts hug a teammate before beginning a routine; one equestrian told me that she tells her horse that she loves him each time they enter the competition arena. All of these are wonderful strategies to optimally transform stress during an important moment to reduce fear and increase courage. Often in doing so, one’s experience and performance are enhanced.
One of the most common perceptions when dealing with a stressful circumstance is the feeling that we are alone. This is an illusion. The human experience is rife with trouble, and authentic living involves coping with something imperfect almost all of the time. Plato said, “be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a hard battle.” Be kind, yes, but this begins by being aware. When wondering if your neighbor, or friend, or competitor is struggling with something Kelly McGonigal says, “you don’t need to ask them if you are right. If they are human, you are right. All you need to do is choose to see it.” Choosing to become aware of the struggles of others supports us in coping with our own.
Perhaps one of life’s most comforting encounters is that of another person who recognizes your experience. Empathy, the ability to stand in another’s shoes, is a coveted and widely sought quality in friendships, and is the key ingredient of true connection between one another. Highly emotive events, be they joyful, challenging, or tragic hold a great deal of empathy potential. Opportunities that are meaningful to us, threaten us, confuse and embarrass us shake our public persona, leaving cracks through which our softer selves become exposed. We laugh about them, cry through them, and agonize up and down their tumultuous slopes. Frequently during these emotively seismic shifts, one catches a glimpse of the vulnerable core of another. Frequently, when this core is glimpsed it’s not feelings of victory, or pity, or superiority that are experienced, but recognition. The recognition of one’s own struggle in another, a “me too” of the spirit, these are some of the most meaningful moments two people can share. These moments would not be possible without stress – without internal upheavals that open us to recognize ourselves in one another. As explained earlier they can also be gateways to outstanding performances.
Sometimes stress and emotional upheavals are not visible to others. We all differ to the degree that we are comfortable sharing our struggles with others. Families, groups, and cultures vary enormously regarding conventional and acceptable behavior in this respect. Authenticity is important, and I encourage you to act in ways that feel authentic to you. If you recognize that you are someone who could benefit from greater openness and empathy below is an exercise for you. These skills can be developed with practice, and are usually best practiced before you are consumed by a stressful event.
Consider the people in your life with whom you feel comfortable sharing your struggles and concerns. Once weekly (or more frequently if you prefer), make a point of sharing a problem on your mind with one of them. The severity of the problem is not important. Solutions to the problems do not need to be found in order for this exercise to be helpful. Often solutions may not be possible at that time. Sometimes it can be helpful to explain this to your listener in case he or she feels expected to solve your concern. If you don’t have someone with whom you are comfortable sharing, the problem can also be expressed in a journal. This is an exercise in openness. The sharing is the point.
The next time you find yourself feeling alone in your struggles take a moment. Look around, and when someone who appears to have it all figured out comes to mind, recite the story of his or perfect life in your mind. When you do this calmly you will notice how ridiculous it sounds. Then, go on and consider what she or he could be struggling with. Engaging in this exercise will reveal how little you might know about this person. You don’t know how his body feels, or what her husband said to her that morning (or if she has a husband), or how inadequate he feels at work, or how much she doubts her fitness for this race. This is a practice that can also be carried out like the openness exercise above, consciously and regularly.
Although the topic of this article seems peripheral regarding its relevance to sport, I want to stress to you how central it is. One of the most powerful lessons I’ve received from working with athletes this year involves the critical role that feelings of belonging, connection, and empathy play in athletic training and competition, especially in times of stress. I’ve been surprised by the frequency which elite athletes refer to the quality of their relationships and feelings of belonging as key variables currently impacting their performance. Taking time to consider your current skills and resources in this area is a subject well worth the time of any performance-focused athlete.
So, I encourage you to practice the exercises above, and the next time your life turns wildly, reach out. Grasp the hands of those close to hold you. Share your experience, hear theirs, or choose to be aware that everyone has a struggle of his or her own even if you don’t know what it is. By doing so you’ll feel greater courage, motivation, resilience and connection, and quite possibly run faster also!
McGonigal, K. (2015), The Upside of Stress. New York, New York: Penguin Random House
Special thanks to Shannon Thompson for contributing this guest post.
About the author: Shannon Thompson is a Mental Performance Consultant based out of Hypo2 Sport High Performance Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. Shannon holds a Masters in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Currently, her primary clientele are elite endurance athletes, and student athletes from numerous sports at Northern Arizona University. Shannon is also a researcher, focusing specifically on understanding and helping athletes to optimize the moments of highest exertion in training and competition. She is also a competitive runner on the road and trail.
Recommended Additional Reading: The Flow State: The Science of Running in “The Zone”
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