Benjamin Franklin once said: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” While he was right about those two, he forgot to add a third to the list: stress. Research shows that how you interpret a given situation may determine whether or not you experience it as being stressful.
Despite our best efforts, stress remains inevitable, whether at work or at home. Although we can’t escape stress, yoga and other mind-body approaches offer skills for appraising our experiences to better cope with life’s challenges.
A study published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology suggests that interpreting physiological arousal like a rapid heart beat or shortness of breath, as a tool for enhancing functioning rather than a threat can increase our performance and potentially decrease our experience of physiological stress.
To test this idea, 50 adult volunteers (28 male, 22 female; Mean age 20.24 years) with no prior golf putting experience were randomly assigned to either an arousal reappraisal or a cognitive control group. Members of each group were asked to complete a series of golf putts in which their accuracy (distance from the hole) was measured.
Prior to the golf task, participants were fitted with a noninvasive cardiograph device that estimated cardiac output, heart rate and total peripheral resistance (one determinant of blood pressure and the delivery of blood and oxygen to the organs). Baseline readings of cardiovascular output were collected while they were in a resting condition.
Individual’s interpretation of their physiological arousal was also measured using the following question, “What effect do you think somatic anxiety will have on your performance of the upcoming task?” Responses were indicated using a 7-point Likert scale that ranged from very negative to very positive.
Participants in both groups were informed that the top 5 golf putting performers would receive prizes and the bottom 5 individuals would be interviewed. They were also informed that their golfing performance would be publicly posted on a leader board and video footage of their golfing may be viewed by their peers.
After a series of initial putts, individuals were informed that their score was in the bottom 30% compared to others, and their performance needed to improve to be included in the study. These manipulations ensured that the task was perceived as competitive, evaluative and stressful.
The key to this study is that members of the arousal reappraisal group were given specific instructions that encouraged them to view their physiological arousal during the golfing task as potentially beneficial to their performance. In contrast, the cognitive control group was asked to think about capital cities for 1 minute. They were also told that their performance would not be evaluated, potentially reducing their physiological arousal.
Researchers compared the data from both groups to see whether arousal reappraisal might be related to differences in perceived stress, cardiovascular readings and golf putting performance.
Although no statistically significant group differences were found for cardiovascular responses, the reappraisal group reported experiencing physiological arousal during golf putting as enhancing their performance whereas the control group reported feeling that stress undermined their abilities. The reappraisal group also performed better on golf putting accuracy than those in the cognitive control group.
Mind Over Matter
Results of this study suggest that our perception of physiological arousal as beneficial or stressful may have significant bearing on both our experience and ability to navigate challenge. In other words, we have the capacity to choose whether to interpret difficult events as growth opportunities or negative experiences.
"Our perception of physiological arousal as beneficial
or stressful determines our experience."
This message reflects the heart of yoga; a practice in which we confront our physical and emotional challenges and explore new ways of addressing them on and off the mat.
Our mindset shapes our experience. In yoga, as in life, our outlook and performance vary vastly when we greet difficult postures or practices with curiosity, playfulness and determination versus doubt, negativity or pessimism.
When our mindset is positive we approach experiences as growth opportunities. The outcome is, in many ways, secondary to the adventure. But when we meet challenge with cynicism, negativity or anticipation of failure, even the sweetness of accomplishment is dampened.
It’s all a matter of perspective.