You ask [Aly Raisman] about feeling the pressure and she says, ‘I don’t really feel it,’ and you know, I think it’s because she labels it something different in her head. Some kids feel anxiety, feel pressure, she feels excitement. It’s just how you label that.
– Tim Daggett, Olympic commentator, 7/31/12
When you’re faced with a high-pressure situation, like giving a public speech, taking an important exam, or performing in an athletic competition, it’s only natural to assess whether or not you are adequately prepared. Are you ready to compete? Are you fully rested? Do you remember your notes? According to the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat, these appraisals can lead you to construe the same situation in markedly different ways. If you have enough resources to deal with the situation, you are more likely to view it as a challenge; if you do not, you will perceive the situation as a threat.
These different perceptions (or construals) don’t only impact the literal way that you identify and label these events; they have distinct physiological and functional outcomes as well.
If you feel like you are preparing for a challenge, your heart will beat faster and your vascular resistance will drop. This is the same physiological process that happens when people engage in strenuous aerobic exercise; it is an indicator that you are efficiently mobilizing energy and preparing to act as effectively as possible. If you feel like you are preparing for a threat, your response will be much less adaptive. Your cardiac activity will still rise, but you will experience vasoconstriction instead of vasodilation. In other words, your heart rate will still speed up, but the rest of your body won’t respond quite so optimally; your blood pressure and your stress level will both skyrocket. Not surprisingly, people who are preparing for an event that they construe as a threat find the entire process far more demanding and stressful, while those who are preparing for a challenge end up performing much better.
In one recent study, researchers asked varsity baseball and softball players to imagine themselves in a high-pressure situation at the regional playoffs, and then speak for two minutes about how they would feel. While this was happening, the athletes were hooked up to several physiological sensors that measured cardiac and vascular reactivity, indices that acted as a proxy for how the athletes were construing the situation. The athletes who displayed a “challenge response” in that 2-minute study (i.e. had elevated heart rates and higher levels of vasodilation) ended up performing better in their games throughout the rest of the season. The athletes who exhibited a “threat response” (i.e. had elevated heart rates and vasoconstriction) performed worse. From this evidence, the researchers concluded that in the athletic domain (as had already been shown in most other domains), viewing a situation as a challenge will lead you to perform much better than viewing the same exact situation as a threat.
Note that the takeaway point of this study is not that the experiment itself caused these athletes to perform better. Rather, the researchers assumed that people have a trait-like tendency to view high-pressure situations as either challenging or threatening, and that this tendency is fairly consistent over time. However the athletes construed the situation during the simulation presumably indicates how they would construe the situation in real life, and how they would similarly feel every time they faced a high-pressure game throughout the season. The model suggests that these different construals result from assessing your resources and analyzing how prepared you are for the event. However, if someone is an inferior baseball player and he responds to high-pressure games by construing them as threats, is it because he’s truly less skilled than his teammates who construe the game as a challenge? Or is he only less skilled because his perception of the situation as a threat is hampering his performance?
People can be trained to actively and intentionally engage in reconstrual; in fact, this process is one of the hallmarks of cognitive behavioral therapy. This model and its effects may rest on the assumption that people are prone to consistently construe situations in one way or the other based on their resource assessments, but that doesn’t mean that this tendency is immutable. If you actively re-frame stressful situations as challenges and your elevated heart rate as excitement (or “efficient effort mobilization”), you can improve your health, well-being, and performance level, all at the same time.
Blascovich, J., & Mendes, W. B. (2000). Challenge and threat appraisals: The role of affective cues. In J. Forgas (Ed.), Feeling and thinking: The role of affect in social cognition (pp. 59-82). Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.
Blascovich, Jim, Seery, Mark D., Mugridge, Carrie A., Norris, R. Kyle, & Weisbuch, Max (2004). Predicting athletic performance from cardiovascular indexes of challenge and threat. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40 (5), 683-688
Tomaka, Joe, Blascovich, Jim, Kelsey, Robert M., & Leitten, Christopher L. (1993). Subjective, physiological, and behavioral effects of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65 (2), 248-260
Tomaka, Joe, Blascovich, Jim, Kibler, Jeffrey, & Ernst, John M. (1997). Cognitive and physiological antecedents of threat and challenge appraisal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73 (1), 63-72