Optimizing Mental Efficiency and Physical Performance During Times of Stress

Posted in: April 26, 2019 By: Bernadette Marie Wilson

Most of us have read numerous articles and studies documenting the damages of stress and burnout. Despite knowing this information, why do we continue to overwork ourselves beyond peak performance levels, only to suffer the damaging results of stress – poor physical and mental health, along with damage to our relationships? 

The answer lies in who we are as humans. It is in our humanity, our need to survive that pushes us to do more. Our brains automatically react to positive and negative stressors, often without our conscious awareness. When we are faced with a tough situation – a demanding boss expecting a project to be delivered on a short timeline, negotiating the waters of an employee conflict, facing the perils of starting a new business, our natural instinct is to work harder and manage competing priorities to manage the immediate stressors. This state is a useful short term tactic.  Our brains and our bodies can endure the neuroendocrine surge for a brief period. However, after a protracted period of stress our brain, and bodies, reach a tipping point of exhaustion.  

Pay attention to signals that indicate your performance tipping point.

Our individual past histories, physical, mental, and cultural conditioning give some of us the ability to endure stressful occurrences longer than others. Many of us have witnessed successful leaders who have mastered techniques to reorganize their thoughts quickly, and who remain calm and focused through negotiation or managing high-risk deals with finesse.  They are amazing highly productive leaders!

Whether one is a highly skilled leader or still learning foundational self-management skills, if left unchecked our natural responses to stress can get the best of us. Without self-awareness, overtime we can suffer symptoms of fatigue and burnout. Our physical health, mental performance, and relationships can suffer from the fallout of these prolonged periods of stress. 

I am not professing to avoid hard work. It is in this hard work that we find success. However, if you are driven to work for too long a period of time, burnout will begin.  When our life choices or conditions require us to enter a high-performance state, taking intermittent breaks will help rejuvenate the brain and allow one to return to the task with increased vigor, creativity, and determination.

How do you know when you hit the point where a break is beneficial? 

Three things are essential to achieve anything worthwhile: Hard work, persistence, and common sense.” – Thomas A. Edison

As stated by Thomas Edison – “common sense.” When feelings such as fear, anger, boredom begin to dominate your thoughts or manifest in physical symptoms that interrupt your productivity.  Set a timer and take a break every hour or notice when strong emotions begin to surface. The goal is to recognize these feelings early and often as they occur, then take a pleasurable break –take a short walk, stretch for a few moments, and breathe!  

Using Stress to Your Advantage

Stress is needed and can be a positive driver. We use stress to motivate us to perform, to kick start our brain’s neurological drive system. When we perceive a stressor, our system releases hormones including cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine. These hormones send neurological signals that increase blood pressure and our heart rate and kick start our drive.

Recall a recent time when you had to give a presentation in front of a group.  Most likely before you gave the speech you experienced a physical change in your breathing and perhaps had the twinge of butterflies. Your mind was focused on your speech and the audience (vs thinking about your next meeting of the day). Furthermore, to avoid feelings of nervousness and embarrassment, you did the “work” of preparation beforehand.  The thought of a stressful situation motivated you to reach your potential. 

We also use stress to keep us enthusiastic about reaching the finish line of our goals.  A good practice is to set multiple, short term,  achievable milestones.  As we strive for a goal that is in near sight we have some level of stress, but it is manageable.  Once we reach the milestone, we are rewarded. Upon success, we are flooded with natural feel-good hormones, neurochemicals, and neurotransmitters (i.e., endorphins, dopamine,  serotonin, and oxytocin.). 

Implementing habits such a mindful practice, taking small pleasure breaks through the day, and setting reward milestones will provide the needed edge on stress. Knowing when we are approaching a critical mass, i.e. “tipping point” in our work and life stressors is crucial to deploying corrective actions that will lead to optimizing our physical and mental health and overall cognitive performance.  

Relaxing techniques and habits such as a consistent mediation practice, deep breathing, or placing yourself into states of gratitude and positivity can help your brain to reorganize and reenter a state of calm and rejuvenation.