A big goal. A make-or-break workout. A new challenge. A championship-level race. High-stakes situations have the potential to bring out the best in each of us. They also have the power to leave us paralyzed with fear.
In both circumstances, norepinephrine is at play. In times of stress, this neurotransmitter floods the brain, explains Ian Robertson, a cognitive neuroscientist at Trinity College and author of The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger.
“Norepinephrine’s job is to kick in during times of challenge, threat, excitement, and anxiety,” Robertson says. “It strengthens the brain connections involved in dealing with the current situation and inhibits those not needed.”
Most people know this as the “fight or flight” response, where the brain alerts the body to either battle or flee from a threat.
Norepinephrine increases arousal and alertness, promotes vigilance, and gives the brain a laser focus on the situation. The response is typically associated with major threats, like coming face-to-face with a grizzly bear, but Robertson says this norepinephrine flood takes place in stress of all forms—including stressors associated with training and racing.
“Like many of the brain’s neurotransmitters, it has an upside-down U-shaped function, with too little or too much leading to underperformance,” Robertson explains. Too little, and you’re uninspired and sluggish; too much, and a debilitating case of anxiety forms.
The sweet spot in the middle, however, allows optimal performance.“Synchronizing the activity of different parts of the brain allows you to make norepinephrine work to your advantage,” Robertson says. “You can harness stress to achieve better performance.”
Find Your Stress Sweet Spot
Recognize Your Symptoms
Many of the symptoms of anxiety and stress—dry mouth, racing heart—are the same as excitement. Rather than panicking at these symptoms, welcome them as a sign that your body is ready for the task at hand.
Don’t Keep Calm
Believe it or not, pretending like you’re not stressed will make things worse, not better. Harvard researchers have found that those who bury their stress by feigning calmness perform worse than those who acknowledge their feelings of anxiety.
Reframe the Situation
Choose your words carefully, and say them out loud, advises Robertson. “Saying ‘I feel excited,’ rather than ‘I feel anxious’ makes it easier to get to that sweet spot.” Remember, the bodily symptoms of anxiety and excitement are the same—so choosing to embrace the symptoms as one over the other can keep stress levels from spiraling out of control.