Stress or Challenge: Trick question…You decide how your body responds

By Mandy Johnson -Originally posted at Renegade Wellness

Turns out stress is good for you and your kids in medium doses. Stress can make you better if you have the right mental approach.

I remember it very distinctly. I was performing an across-the-floor routine, and the instructor had the whole class stop while I did the sequence repeatedly until I did it exactly how she wanted it. There was a point when I decided that I would accept this challenge instead of feeling singled out. I was going to do it the right. I don’t remember how many times it took me, but I do remember the point at which I changed my mindset from “she is singling me out, and I don’t like it” to “she is going to teach me something, and I am going to get this.” While the event was not even close to the most stressful I have had in my life, it is one where I clearly remember changing my mindset. It is also a good demonstration of taking a situation as a challenge instead of a threat.

orange sunrise silhouette of person standing on rock surrounded by body of water
Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

What Makes a Challenge vs. Threat State

We are all faced with potentially stressful situations day in and day out. But what makes one situation stressful instead of a challenge to be tackled? Well, to a point, we each make that decision for ourselves. This decision process is the transactional model of stress and coping described in that complete page-turner we all have in our libraries, undoubtedly known as Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. This 1984 classic was written by Richard Lazarus and Susan Folkman, some brilliant humans who probably had minimal fashion sense but kicked ass in academic circles. Lazarus and Folkman found that how we think of a situation determines our body’s response. It is not the actual event that causes stress but the way we subconsciously think about it that determines how the body and brain react. 

Lazarus and Folkman describe a challenge as an event or situation, known as a stressor, that we feel we can handle. When we think of a circumstance as a challenge, we focus on what good can come from the situation. We believe there will be rewards or personal growth we’ll attain when we successfully overcome this event. It is not that we think it will be easy, but we instead focus on the possible benefit. Compare that to a threat which could be the same event or situation for a different person. However, they view this stressor as something they cannot handle in this instance. When they see a situation as a threat, they’re focused on the negative. They are focused on the potential damage to their mental outlook or self-esteem because they are not sure they will succeed. Clear as mud? Here is a story that brings it all together as told in Frontiers of Psychology, modified by me for improved quirky humor. 

Challenge vs. Threat Example

Jessica is standing at the start of a critical road race. She wants to make it to the Boston Marathon this year and get a sponsor so she can get free running shoes to match her hair. She has a hilly course ahead of her, and hills have been her Achilles heel. The race is close to starting, and the pressure is mounting. She feels like her heart is beating in her throat. She knows that the race will be physically and mentally demanding. Jessica has trained hard for this. Jessica believes that she can pace herself and feels ready to tackle the hilly course. She strides off rhythmically, able to follow her pre-race plan, deal with unforeseen events, and achieve a personal best. In this example, we consider Jessica to be in a challenge state.

Back to the start of the race, gazing just over to Jessica’s left, we see Sarah standing at the beginning of the same race. She would also like to qualify for Boston this year. Like Jessica, Sarah feels her heart rate increase, and she knows that the race will be demanding but has also trained for this. However, in contrast to Jessica, Sarah questions whether or not she can pace herself. Hills have been historically hard for her growing up in Louisiana, where the tallest ‘mountain’ is 535 feet above sea level #ahillnotamountain. Despite specifically training for hills, she feels worried about tackling the hilly course during a race situation. She strides off enthusiastically but cannot find her rhythm and cannot follow her pre-race plan. She deals with unforeseen events poorly, gets distracted, and completes the race outside of her expected time. In this example, we consider that Sarah is in a threat state.

How Challenge and Threat States Apply to You

Challenge and threat states or CAT states have been associated with different performance outcomes in athletes. Quite a bit of research has been done on CAT states in athletes so that professional sports teams and Olympic athletes can dominate their sport. Understanding an individual’s response to stress is key for optimizing performance. Stressful events also occur in business, medicine, education, and sports. As it turns out, challenge and threat states are applicable for regular unathletic plebs like the rest of us because of how our brain modifies our bodies’ responses. 

The Body’s Response

The mental outlook that Jessica and Sarah had affected how their bodies responded during the race. In Jessica’s case, she is experiencing increased heart rate due to the release of epinephrine (adrenaline) and several other hormone-driven changes in how her heart and blood vessels are working. These changes allow her to use energy more efficiently. Jessica also has increased blood flow to her brain, which will help her with improved decision-making and self-regulation. Why? Because to use your brain well, it needs more blood to get more of the energy it needs. Her body is setting her up for an increased likelihood of success.

Sarah’s body is not responding the same way in a threat state. Sarah has the same epinephrine release in a threat state, but her body also releases cortisol. The release of cortisol stops several of the other effects of the epinephrine, so her body does not change how her heart and blood vessels are working as it did for Jessica. Her body has to work harder during the race for this reason. She also does not have increased blood flow to her brain, so she is more likely to have ineffective decision-making and self-regulation. Both decision-making and self-regulation require mental focus, and without the extra blood and energy, her brain was at a disadvantage. This is important as she could not follow her pre-race plan and got distracted easily. Her brain did not cause the release of helpful hormones in a threat state. This ultimately prevented her from achieving her goals despite training. She probably still kicked my rear because my idea of a fast pace is a nine-minute mile, but I doubt that will matter to her since I am finishing with her grandma.  

Challenge Application

Now let’s discuss how this can apply to people who do not enjoy running, which is about 79.67% of the US *authors note-I have no research to back this stat up, but I am really good at wildly guessing as I discuss exercise all the time with my patient’s. 

Research indicates that challenge and threat states occur in life, such as during a job interview. Ideally, we all want to be able to answer questions well during an interview. We will want extra blood and energy heading up to the brain to come up with unique answers and witty banter, thus sealing the deal on that new job. The stress that results in a challenge or threat state does not have to come from a significant life-changing event like getting a new job. It can also come from weekly recurring stress like coming up with what we will have for dinner this week. 

Challenge state stress is good for us and for kids too. Research shows an improved ability to deal with stress later in life if children experience moderate types of stressful events in childhood. Moderate stressors were not having enough money for activities, working under pressure (athletic or academic), and mild teasing by other children. We don’t need to protect ourselves or our children from mild stress. Instead, we need to change how we respond to it.

We can’t control our stressors, but we can control our responses. Stress can feel like the weather, something we can’t predict or control. When it pours down on us like a hurricane, it seems like there is no escaping or stopping it. Although it may feel like stress is an uncontrollable force that shapes our lives, it isn’t. We can choose to live without power over our circumstances. We can choose to live the life of a red shirt on Star Trek (You know, the ones that always die on away missions, eaten by the Borgovian land worms). Or we can choose to have a life where we are on the bridge of the Enterprise, deciding how and where the spaceship is flown.

Change Your Brain = Change the Result

The more we learn about the brain, the more we understand how our brain changes the entire game. The brain has plasticity, meaning connections can be made, unmade, and remade. The brain is moldable, and you can strengthen connections or make them weaker. We can change the brain when we take the challenge. We can change our brains when we see a situation as surmountable with training. To do this, we need to accept our own agency. We need to move the locus of control outside of ourselves, where the situation controls us, to inside ourselves, where our actions control the situation. Sometimes to do that, we need help which can come in the form of a xenobiologist who can educate us on all the things that are likely to eat us if we join a space exploration team. Or it could come from a counselor who can give us tools to switch our mindset from this is impossible to what would I need to do to make this possible. So what will you decide? Is it stress, or is it a challenge?

This is a guest blog by Amanda (Mandy) Johnson of Renegade Wellness. Mandy empowers people to live their lives without physical limitations. This article was originally posted on her Substack.
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Mandy is an avid Full Focus Planner® user.

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