‘‘The test you will take today is designed to help us identify people who are exceptionally weak in their problem-solving reasoning abilities. Your performance on this test will not be scored like most normal tests, but rather will be classified as either above or below a predetermined cut-off score. If you score below that cut-off, this suggests that you are exceptionally weak —in other words, well below average in your problem-solving reasoning abilities. Thus, this test and the scoring method used are designed only to separate those who are especially weak from everyone else.”
This is how Dr. Chalabajev and her team introduced the test to participants of group 1 in their study about how people deal with performance anxiety. Group 2 was introduced differently, with the underlined words replaced as follows: weak by strong and below by above. The intention was to trigger fear in group 1 making participants feeling under threat, by being at risk of getting classified as “especially weak”, whereas help group 2 to identify the test as a challenge where they could potentially be identified as “especially strong” problem solvers with not much else to lose. In scientific terms group 1 was targeted to become “goal-avoidant” and group 2 “goal-approaching.”
The study results* are in my point of view mind boggling:
* results source: Chalabaev, A., Major, B., Cury, F., & Sarrazin, P. (2009). Physiological markers of challenge and threat mediate the effects of performance-based goals on performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 991–994.
Group 2 performed ~40% better pumping more blood with blood vessels widened compared to group 1, which pumped less blood whilst blood vessels were more constricted. Perceiving a situation as a threat versus a challenge makes us likely perform worse, whilst risking to damage your body due to higher blood pressure etc.. As several other studies confirm these findings, the 1-Million-Dollar question in my point of view remains: how can we switch under pressure from threat to challenge?
Sports psychologist Dr. Martin has successfully applied a simplified model of ABC from Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) with his athletes. The ABC concept starts from understanding that (A) activating events alone, do not cause unhealthy emotional and behavioural consequences (C), but that irrational beliefs (B) about the adversity are often the real cause behind.
Once we start to analyse and understand what irrational beliefs (B) might cause our reaction, we then can begin to challenge them and hence change behavioural consequences (C). Dr. Turner classifies 4 faulty belief-categories:
- Rigid demands: “I must succeed in this situation” or “I must be treated fairly”
- Awfulizing: “Failure is awful” or “Being treated disrespectfully is “terrible”
- Low frustration tolerance: “I can’t stand being treated with disrespect” or “I cannot tolerate unfairness”
- Downing: “Failing here, makes me a failure” or “If I fail, it shows what an idiot I am”
Once we have identified such faulty beliefs we can challenge and amend them according to Dr. Turner:
- Flex your thinking: “I want to succeed in this important situation”
- Challenge awfulness: “Being treated unfairly is bad, but not awful / terrible”
- Increase frustration tolerance: “Just because I don’t like unfairness, does not mean I should be treated fairly all the time”
- Big picture view: “Failing here does neither make me a failure nor an idiot”
Learning about this ABC concept, I realised that my own mental break down on the Camino De Santiago 2012 was clearly related to most of Dr. Turners points above. Half-way through the 800km walk, I struggled with massive blisters, broken shoes, feeling completely alone and on the edge of quitting. Most importantly I struggled with the belief, that “I had to succeed by all means” and “that failing would be terrible”, making “me a complete failure.”
This mental pressure got so bad, that I broke down, realising, that “I did not have to prove anything to anyone” and that “it was a big success already, having walked 400km”. I changed my belief into “it does not matter whether I complete this walk, but I go as far as I can.”
Strangely enough, with this the pressure fell off my shoulders and my faith returned. I felt that somebody would help me with my blisters and that my shoes would be ok. Now I know I had changed my perception from threat into challenge and… viola I completed the remaining 400km.
When things get tough, check if you feel under threat and try to find a way to change from threat into challenge. Perhaps you don’t “have-to-succeed-by-all-means” or learn to accept that “others-are-not-perfect” whilst life at times “is-unfair.” Whatever it is, challenging and amending beliefs from threat to challenge will make you perform better and stay healthier.