Stress Debunked: Everything you thought you knew about stress is wrong

By changing the way they interact with their stress daily, the best athletes can use that signal to sustain motivation, bounce back from setbacks, and push themselves to greater heights. Founders should do the same

September 19, 2023

Stress Debunked: Everything you thought you knew about stress is wrong

This piece is part of Alex Auerbach PhD’s four-part series on what stressed out CEOs can learn from elite athletes. As a sports psychologist working with high performers in the NBA, NFL and Olympics, Alex explores the tactics professional athletes use to manage stress and how founders can use those same tools to get the most out of themselves under pressure.

The stress reality

Stress is part and parcel of what it means to run a business. Between the ever-changing product development, emerging concerns of customers and team members, and the pressure from investors to deliver (and quickly), it’s no wonder that 72% of start-up founders report that entrepreneurship has impacted their mental health, 37% reported that they experienced anxiety, and 36% were experiencing burnout.

However, most of what we have been taught about stress – that it’s bad for you, slowly destroying your health with the same efficacy as sitting and smoking, and the implicit goal of a good life is to have as little stress as possible – is just plain wrong.

What is stress?

Stress is just your brain and body preparing you to do something effortful. That’s it. It’s your brain predicting that you’ll need some additional energetic resources to take on a challenge, and marshaling those resources so you can execute. Cortisol isn’t the stress hormone, it’s the action hormone.

In fact, you need stress to perform. Without any stress, you’d die. Like most things in life, stress follows the principle of hormesis – you want more than a little, not too much, in the right dose at the right times, with breaks in between. Our goal isn’t to get rid of stress – it’s to learn to use stress more effectively.

While we can’t remove the stress of starting a business altogether, there’s a particular class of performers – professional athletes – who are surprisingly similar to startup founders in many regards. They must work hard and deliver consistently, performing brilliantly under intense pressure. Like entrepreneurs, athletes also have their identity tied up in their outcomes, have expectations from people invested in them, and don’t have a clear path to success.

However, unlike founders, athletes have had the benefit of working with sport psychologists for the last several decades to harness that stress and turn it into more effective action. One of the major techniques is to start viewing pressure as a privilege.

Start viewing pressure as a privilege

The stress you feel is a sign you care and that you’re doing something that matters, not a sign that something is wrong, bad, or broken. Feeling the weight of responsibility is a testament to the importance of your endeavors, a sign that you care deeply about the outcomes. By reframing stress as an indicator of purpose rather than a negative force, you can channel that pressure into motivation and resilience.

By changing the way they interact with their stress on a daily basis, the best athletes are able to use that signal to sustain motivation, bounce back from setbacks, and push themselves to greater heights.

As a founder, you too can find the benefits of pressure by regularly tapping into your values, what you care about, and the larger meaning of what you are building. Of course we want to manage and mitigate stress. But, in the biggest moments, it can be helpful to remind yourself of what it’s all for.

Dr. Alex Auerbach

Dr. Alex Auerbach

Performance psychologist

Bio

Dr. Auerbach is a performance psychologist who works with NBA players, Olympians and tech founders.

Dr. Alex Auerbach

Performance psychologist

Bio

Dr. Auerbach is a performance psychologist who works with NBA players, Olympians and tech founders.

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