One of the more interesting issues I regularly see at my office occurs when otherwise talented, successful athletes struggle to manage their stress in the same ways in which less successful, unhappy people do. For example, while you might expect an athlete who struggles to earn playing time to feel “stressed out,” you might not think that the star athlete has his own unique stress that he experiences. In psychology, stress is broken down into bad stress (distress), and good stress (eustress), and helps us better understand how level of success doesn’t fully explain what individuals will experience a high degree of stress, and what people won’t.
Sources of stress
The expression “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure” is a simple way to look at stress. What this means as it applies to stress is quite simple: Only you get to decide how you view things in life. The value you place on the experiences you have in life is completely up to you, and with every new experience you get to decide whether you are excited, or bothered, by what lies ahead. When it comes to stress, human perception plays an incredibly big part of the equation.
As you can see, no matter what is thrown at you in life, you get to decide exactly how you want to view the situation. Athletes who perceive life experiences as challenges rather than threats end up dealing with an entirely different mindset and stress level, just as you might expect.
Examining good stress
Interestingly, we as humans still experience stress when dealing with good things in life. For example, I have had countless athletes in my office over the years who report being “stressed out” by a variety of good life events. One athlete experienced a lot of stress pursuing a state record, another stressed out over dealing with all the college recruiting letters she was receiving, and yet another struggled with all the unwanted attention he received after making the all-state team. In each example, the athletes were happy with their level of success, but still felt pressure related to the new expectations and unplanned attention that came along with their success.
Dealing with good stress is not limited to athletics, as academically talented students sometimes feel pressure to succeed, as do talented business leaders. Ironically, it is not uncommon for me to regularly see clients at my office who self-report that on the outside “everything is good — even GREAT by other people’s standards,” but that they still regularly feel the symptoms of stress, including sleep and eating issues, increased level of frustration, and even feelings of hopelessness having to work so hard for success yet still feeling like it isn’t enough (and may never be).
Examine perception as it impacts level of stress
Bringing this discussion back full-circle, isn’t it interesting how some folks never seem to be stressed (even when things appear to be really bad for them), while others with so much going for themselves never appear to be happy and settled? The easy answer to why this contrast exists has to do with human perception. In the first example, some people find ways to view even the most difficult of life’s situations in positive, optimistic ways. Conversely, other people, regardless of their good fortune, have a tendency to never quite find happiness and instead work even harder to try and reach a better, more peaceful place.
Yes, perception is a big deal when it comes to stress, but do we have the ability to control our human perception? I believe we do, and that while it might not be easy to modify the ways in which you perceive the world around you, it sure makes a lot of sense to do that if in fact you are someone who regularly deals with a lot of stress.
Stress isn’t bad, it’s what we make it
One thing is for certain in life: We will all deal with stress, and we will deal with it on a daily basis. There are countless life experiences that stress us out along varying degrees all day long, from the unwanted morning alarm to traffic jams to unexpected negative world news. Returning phone calls and email can be stressful, and dealing with rude people can be stressful, too. Some planned events are stressful (i.e. struggling to find the right outfit before going to work), just as unplanned things are also stressful (i.e. your car not starting on a cold winter morning).
The key, therefore, isn’t trying to avoid life stress (an impossibility), but to instead accept stress is real and that it doesn’t always have to be viewed as “bad.” As humans, we are quite resourceful, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this fact. The stressors in our life will always be there, but what we do with the stressors is the real difference-maker in life.
If you are an athlete, coach, or sports parent, think about the importance of stress appraisal (how you interpret stress) and stress response (what you do with stress). Remember, just because you see someone seemingly doing fine doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t struggling with the stress associated with being good. Talented athletes, just like talented students, coaches, and employees, often work very hard to experience success and they sometimes deal with a lot of stress as a result.
What do you think are the biggest strssors for athletes? Do you also think “good stress” often goes unnoticed, making it even more challenging to deal with since others often can’t understand how success could lead to stress?