Stressing Out. Why you should try it.

With the frenzied pace of life and business, most organizations are leery of stress creeping into their work environments. They just may be missing the boat on this one. For one thing, some level of stress at work is unavoidable. For another, stress is a powerful and natural element of individual and organizational development. Don’t eliminate stress…harness it!

Whether you consider the physiological or psychological impacts of stress on the body, the underlying premise is consistent…stress causes a reaction in the body and can make you stronger, better prepared, and more resilient.

In measured doses with adequate recovery time, stress is the catalyst for development. We develop muscles by working them, letting them recover, then working them again. We develop cardiovascular conditioning by elevating our heart rate and respiratory rate, which causes our body to produce more oxygen-carrying capacity.

Here are three ways I have grown through stress.

1. When my wife and I trained for our first ironman-distance triathlon, it was tempting to get discouraged in the early months because the early workouts were so challenging, and they paled in comparison to what would be demanded of us later. What I learned, however, was that my body’s ability to carry oxygen would more than double by the end of our training. My body literally had to produce more red blood cells, and the only way it knew to do it was to stress it.

2. When I played trumpet in a competition band, I often found new pieces very challenging, especially at full tempo. As a result, we started by deconstructing the piece, learning it note by note, phrase by phrase, slowly at first and then faster and faster. Once we had it down, we’d push the petal harder, playing it much much faster than necessary. Faster to the point of exhaustion. Faster to the point of failure. Over and over and over. It was hard, but we got better. When it was time to perform, the notes came readily and the performance pace was comfortable.

3. Finally, prior to applying to business school, I had to take the GMAT standardized test. I had taken the test upon graduating from undergrad, but found the test to be long and mentally exhausting, even if the individual questions were not all that difficult. As a result, I scored well, but lost some points for incomplete sections.

Unfortunately, my initial goal was to get into Stanford, and at 22 years old, they told me I’d need some Olympic medals, patents, and a miracle to get in without 5-10 years of experience. They also suggested that when I was serious about applying, I should take the GMAT seriously. They wanted to see a 99th percentile score. Ugh.

I knew that doing better on the test would require better preparation. I needed to be as sharp at the end as at the beginning. So I gathered every practice test I could find and started taking a new GMAT every weekend. Then, taking 2 tests back-to-back.

When the day came to retest, I was ready. I was sharp. I was rested, and I did much better. I raised my score by 70 points and achieved my goal. (As a side note, I also got a tip to look at Emory and had the experience of a lifetime!)

I would suggest at least two tricks to harnessing the power of stress. First, figure out which stressors best prepare you for your performance, be it as a leader, sales person, service rep, student, or parent. Second, figure out what sort of offsetting actions help you recover from the stress.

Nonstop stress is a recipe for disaster, but to be sure…no stress is a recipe for mediocrity.

What do you do to stress yourself as preparation for your peak performance?  Have you hard-wired these stressors into your habits?