How To Use Stress to Be Your Best



“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.” — Hans Selye

When you’re under pressure and your mouth goes dry and your stomach knots, how do you feel?

What if you could feel great?

You can turn this around in an instant.  The key is to distinguish between stress and anxiety.

Key Takeaways

Here are key takeaways:

  • It’s your perception that matters.  It’s the meaning you make.  It’s not what happens to you, it’s what you make of it.
  • Distinguish stress from anxiety.   Stress is not the same as anxiety.
  • Stress is your body, anxiety is your mind.  Stress is your body’s response.  Anxiety is your mind’s response.
  • Turn stress into an ally.  Perceive stress as a good thing.   Use “nerves” to perform better.
  • Choose the job or make the time.  Choose something to spend more time doing every day or carve out time for what you want to practice.

Stress is Your Body’s Response, Anxiety is Your Mind’s Response

When we encounter a trigger, we react with our body and our mind.  Stress is your body’s response.  Anxiety is your cognitive response.

Anxiety is the enemy, not stress.

When you were younger, you linked your poor performance and anxiety to stress.  You didn’t know you weren’t skilled.  All you knew was that when you felt stressed, you didn’t perform well.

With that in mind, you can turn your high-stress scenarios into your best performances.  You can defeat anxiety and use stress to unleash your best.

Distinguish Between Thinking, Feeling, and Doing

I found the key is to distinguish between thinking, feeling and doing.  It also helps to know that your thoughts create your feelings.  It also helps to know that how you interpret your feelings, influences your thoughts.

I have a lot of high-stress, high-stakes scenarios, from running large projects on time and on budget, to pleasing stakeholders, to dealing with conflict on a regular basis.

There was a point where I got too good at dealing with stress.  I didn’t have the distinction between stress and anxiety.  Instead, I assumed that fight-or-flight feeling was bad and I used techniques to make it go away.  I lost my edge.  Stress was my friend in disguise and I didn’t recognize it.

The Real Enemy is Not Stress,  It’s Anxiety

Now I turn stress into results.  Instead, the enemy is anxiety.  Anxiety can wear you down.  Letting your own mind work against you is a bad thing.  The good news, it really was as simple as knowing the difference between stress and anxiety.  When I feel the stress now, I simply ask, “How can I use it?”  I turn it into action.  I use it as a boost of energy and motivation to make things happen.

In Overachievement: The New Science of Working Less to Accomplish More, John Eliot, Ph. D. writes about using stress to improve your performance.

Stress is Not the Same as Anxiety

According to Eliot, stress is your body’s response and anxiety is your cognitive response:

  • The physical symptoms of fight-or-flight are what the human body has learned over thousands of years to operate more efficiently and at the highest level.
  • Anxiety is a cognitive interpretation of that physical response.

You Weren’t Skilled in Dealing with Stress

It wasn’t your stress.  You just weren’t skilled yet.

Dr. Eliot writes:

“You essentially instructed yourself that the root of the problem was your body’s effort to help you perform to your utmost.  Trouble was, you didn’t really have an “utmost.”  You were only eight years old!  Your teacher probably didn’t teach you how to prepare your speech; you hadn’t practiced enough with your instrument.”

Why We Link Stress to Anxiety and Fear of Failure

When we were kids, we didn’t know any better.  It goes back to childhood.  Whenever you got stressed, you didn’t perform well.

You then associated the feeling to poor performance.  Your anticipation of poor performance created anxiety.

The cycle continued.  Eliot writes about how your younger years are the basis for your anxiety:

Dr. Eliot writes:

“All the great athletes, musicians, actors, doctors, and business executives I’ve talked to seem to think the same way.  So why does everyone else identify the body’s sympathetic response to high-stakes situations with fear of failure? 

The confusion tends to stem from childhood, almost as an accident

Here’s what happens: It is the first time you have to deliver in public.  You are eight years old, playing in your first Little League game, giving your first recital, appearing in your first play, or delivering that debut book report from memory before the class.  Your body goes nuts, registering all the classic fight-or-flight symptoms

On some level (and it’s usually not a higher cerebral level because, hey, you’re eight and you don’t’ process things that way yet) you are wondering, “What is happening to me?”  Then you proceed to perform poorly.  You strike out three times and let the ball roll right between your legs, you blow your lines, you forget the next note, you blank on what the book was about. 

The next time you are called upon to perform in public, your body still reacts to the pressure, but you think, “The last time I felt this way, I was so awful that the other kids laughed at me.”  Before you know it, you have attributed poor performance to the body’s natural response under pressure.”

Relaxation is Not the Answer

The most common assumption is that if you feel stressed, you need to learn how relax.  The counterintuitive point is that it’s the anxiety that’s throwing you off your game.

Dr. Eliot writes:

“Relaxation teaches your muscles to lose tone, your brain to be passive.  You cannot win gold medals without muscle tone, nor can you perform at your utmost with other parts of your sympathetic system switched to “slow.” 

Most people experience fight-or-flight symptoms and bam! – their performance is overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety

But arousal and anxiety are not the same thing.  You simply have been conditioned or taught to treat them as equals.  They’re not.”

Unlink Arousal to Anxiety

Sometimes it’s as simple as just knowing that how you think about your stress, is what causes anxiety.  You can instantly unlink them, simply by knowing this.

Dr. Eliot writes:

“The remedy I prescribe for self-intimidation is to unlink arousal from anxiety.  When your body is in a charged state, you must first recognize that anxiety is the result of a psychological misinterpretation of that arousal and then practice choosing the correct interpretation. 

Sometimes just explaining the distinction does the trick.”

Use Stress to Help You Perform Better

Learn to love the pressure.  It can help you perform your best.

Dr. Eliot writes:

“If you know what you’re doing, if you’re good at your job, the “nerves” actually can make you perform better.  You have educated yourself or worked for countless hours perfecting the skills that make for good performance in your field.  You now have to start training yourself to accept that arousal is a good thing.


You learn to love pressure by performing under pressure.  You must put yourself into pressure situations in which you get nervous and then practice assessing what the pressure can do for you, as an asset, a welcome friend.  

Pressure often signals an opportunity to excel.  You must practice understanding that by making a conscious association between the “nerves” and the potential to perform, as the Olympic Creed says, ‘Higher, faster, stronger.’”

To recap, if you can unlink arousal to anxiety and learn to love the pressure, by practicing under pressure, you can use stress to be your best.

Additional Resources

I found these pages helpful for more information on stress and anxiety:

Game on.

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How To Melt Away Stress with the Relaxation Response
Your Thoughts Create Your Feelings
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  1. Wow what an amazingly well written and insightful article! I initially saw the title on Barbara’s blog and was full of fury and damnation to hurry over and argue away at the title, as I typically am a proponent of people taking the time for themselves that they need to relax, BUT after reading the entire article, I decided that this was very beautifully said. So much so that I even bookmarked it to my computer. The highest compliment I think I could give a blogger. Glad that title grabbed my attention. I have read a few of your things before, and am always left inspired. Thanks! Doc

  2. Hey Dr. Nicole

    Thank you – Your highest compliment made my day. I had a hard time with this particular post. It’s a tough topic to boil down. But it’s an important one.

    The distinction between anxiety and stress truly was an “ah ha” for me. Suddenly, my life flashed by as a batch of little movies. As I paused each one, I had new answers to old questions. Why did I fail my pole vault team? In practice, I clared 10 1/2 feet. Why could I not clear 8 feet now? I remember the funny feeling. I remember thinking it meant I would mess up. I never imagined it was my body doing its best to help me reach new hights.

  3. I’m going to ponder the difference between my stress and my anxiety over the weekend. I like what I’m reading.

  4. Hey Stacey

    I’ll be curious to see what you find.

    Isn’t it interesting how a roller-coaster is one person’s fear but another person’s fun? It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you interpret your experience.

  5. Yes it is very interesting. It reminds me of an old saying “you don’t see the world as it is, you see the world as you see it.” I use this concept a lot when I get frazzled. When I can (and I usually can) I put my physical stress and my emotional anxiety into perspective by remember how unimaginable some other people’s lives are around the world. Sometimes, however, I can’t rationalize things so easily. I was in an urban environment earlier this week enjoying the warm sun and a great power walk. While waiting for the light to change the man in front of me turned around and screamed in a dark forceful voice “What the are you staring at?” I was shocked. The physical stress made my lip quiver and my knees go weak. My anxiety created a strong sense of fear that he was going to hurt me. I didn’t say a word and eventually walked away and let it go. But in the moment, there was no way I would have been able to simply say “Hey Stacey, don’t forget about all of the struggling people in this world.” I was scare body, mind, and spirit.

  6. Hey Stacey – I bet if you suddenly needed to run from Mr. Dark and Forceful, you would have ran like the win. That’s fight-or-flight in action.

    I think I know what you mean about rationalizing your response. Have you read the book Blink? I haven’t read it yet, but one of my mentees said a tip to help distinguish between danger and just anxiety is if the hair on the back of your neck stands up.

  7. Your post offers a new perspective to me that stress is not the same as anxiety and that anxiety is the enemy and not stress.

    One thing I especialy like is when you said that
    “It wasn’t your stress. You just weren’t skilled yet.” Yes, very often, stress is triggered by the fact that we are not equipped to cope yet. If we can see that and make up for the shortfall (eg. upgrading our skillsets, etc), we can begin to experience a reduction in our stress levels.

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