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Pumped instead of panicked: How cognitive reappraisal can save your career

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We’ve all been taught that stress is bad for us, but research in psychology continues to turn that wisdom on its head—and shed light on how we can regain control of our destinies, no matter what the day dishes out.

By way of example, let’s look at an iconic snapshot of stress from your typical nature show: a cheetah charging after a gazelle, who careens out of the way in terror.

Both of these animals are in the grip of an epinephrine storm, cortisol levels through the roof, pupils dilated, pulses skyrocketing. The cheetah is hungry. The gazelle wants to stay in one piece. Both are willing to expend huge stores of energy to survive. But that is where the similarities end.

The predator is focused forward, his momentum thrown into the challenge of catching the gazelle. He began the chase because he was convinced he had the resources to overcome the demands on him, so he performs well.

The gazelle, caught unaware, can only pivot and leap and hope, anticipating pain at every turn. She blazes through her reserve energy, falters, and goes down.

Does something go haywire in the gazelle that sets her up for failure? Does the cheetah capitalize on an X-factor in his physiology that leads to success?

Turns out, the answer may be yes.

Psychologists who study performance and stress arousal in people theorize that when resources outweigh demands for a given task, success follows. When demands surpass resources, failure ensues. The Olympian breaks the world record only when his fitness, speed, and efficiency exceed that which was required to set the previous record. Meanwhile, the athlete with the stress fracture has insufficient resources to keep pace. This makes sense, but here’s where it gets interesting: while demand for the same task remains constant, resources can fluctuate based on the participant’s perception of imminent success or failure.

Yes, you can be your own worst enemy. And sometimes you can will yourself into first place. Here’s how. Most people interpret feelings of stress (elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, swarming butterflies) as fear. Fear makes you feel threatened. Research shows that the perception of threat causes vasoconstriction, decreased cardiac output, and increased focus on other threats in your environment. The gazelle’s obsession with avoiding injury sets her up for defeat. 

But when a group of Cambridge students was told that their tachycardia and sweaty-handed stress response meant their bodies were preparing for success in a public speaking task, researchers measured an increase in cardiac efficiency through vasodilation and improved stroke volume. These participants were less affected by the scowls and jeers of their hostile audience, and they performed better than the control group. The demand of giving an impromptu speech to surly evaluators was exactly the same for both groups. Only the perception of their available resources changed…by a subtle shift in thinking. When stress was viewed as protective, adaptive, and functional, performance improved.

This technique of reframing negative emotions of stress into a perception of promised success is called Cognitive Reappraisal. It proves mind over matter does work, and psychologists have the data to prove it.

Not convinced? Here’s another example. College seniors who took a practice GRE exam were told nervousness meant they would score higher on the test; the control group was left to stew in its own stress juices. The first group not only achieved better scores on the quantitative section of the practice test, but also performed better on the real GRE a few months later.

So the next time you get slammed by work-ins or gawk as blood fills the abdomen from that bleeder you can’t find, the next time your hands shake and your heart pounds and you feel sick, tell yourself all those nasty feelings mean your body is arming up for victory.

Beat your chest like Tarzan, give a guttural yell, and charge ahead…because your heart and brain have your back.

For more information on practical ways to manage workflow and stress, go to https://www.guardianvets.com/veterinary-triage-support.

By Holly Sawyer, DVM, Human-Animal Bond Certified. Sawyer is a Veterinary Regional Director for GuardianVets, an advanced telemedicine/teletriage service dedicated to keeping the veterinary hospital in the center of the Human-Animal Bond while supporting the work-life balance of today’s veterinary professional.

Jamieson, Jeremy P., et al. "Mind Over Matter: Reappraising Arousal Improves Cardiovascular and Cognitive Responses to Stress." Journal of Experimental Psychology General 141 (2012): 417-422. doi: 10.1037/a0025719.

Jamieson, Jeremy P., et al. "Improving Acute Stress Responses: The Power of Reappraisal." Current Directions in Psychological Science XX (2012): 1-6. doi: 10.1177/0963721412461500.

Taigman, Mike, and Sascha Liebowitz. Supercharge Your Stress Management in the Age of COVID-19. California: Vow3 Publishing, 2020.

Photo credit: © Pixabay/DrZoltan