Stress can be your friend, as least as far as your cognitive function is concerned.
This is because stress releases the hormone norepinephrine which, in moderate doses, can help your brain function better.
Like many of the brain’s chemical messengers, norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) has a “Goldilocks Zone”, meaning that if levels are either too low, or too high, the brain underperforms and your memory is poorer.
But if it is in this “sweet spot” zone, the different parts of the brain communicate much better with each other because of norepinephrine’s action as a neurotransmitter.
When your brain’s regions are orchestrated in harmony like this, you feel alert and more able to perform and remember better.
Amazingly, memory-impaired people in their seventies who experience stressful life events such as serious illness of a partner, or conflict with family, maintain their memory at better levels over two years than those with no stress.
What’s more people of above-average intelligence generate more norepinephrine when given a problem to solve than do people of average intelligence, as measured by how much the pupils of their eyes dilate, a proven measure of norepinephrine activity.
Norepinephrine can act as a neuromodulator, fostering the growth of new synaptic connections across the brain, and even new brain cells in certain areas.
So how do you find this Goldilocks Zone of stress that will boost your performance? Here are two scientifically-validated ways to use stress in this way.
1. Relabel the symptoms of arousal
Before a stressful meeting, conversation or presentation, say the words “I feel excited” out loud to yourself.
The racing heart, dry mouth and sweaty skin are the same symptoms of excitement as they are of anxiety.
By “relabelling” them, you are likely to perform better – probably because this relabelling pulls you up towards your Goldilock’s Zone of norepinephrine.
2. Take a couple of long slow breaths, in for a count of five, and out for five.
The part of the brain that produces norepinephrine is called the locus coeruleus, and it is sensitive to the levels of carbon dioxide in your blood.
You can control norepinephrine levels in your brain by the way you breathe. And because norepinephrine is a key player in the “fight or flight” response, you can also control your anxiety and stress using breathing.
In my book The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper (Bloomsbury), I give more examples of how you can discover the benefits of stress. Try the Stress Questionnaire on www.ianrobertson.org and follow me on Twitter @ihrobertson