Exposing Yourself to Positive Psychological Stress

Now that I’m settled in life, I can’t say I have a lot of stress. I have a permanent job, which would be difficult to lose, but even if, I would be very surprised if it would take me long to find a new one. Every day is basically the same for me, but perhaps not quite as repetitive as in Groundhog Day. The only times I feel uncomfortable are when I have to take public transport and suddenly find myself being part of a small minority. That’s the kind of discomfort I will probably never be able to shake off.

Still, looking back in life, I well-remember high-pressure situations. Think of exams in general. You need to do well in high school to get into a good university, you need to do well in your Bachelor’s to get into a good Master’s program (in Europe; in the US you better quit after your Bachelor’s), you better do a good Master’s thesis to get a good job. On your job, you learn the ropes and start contributing, but once you have proven yourself, you can basically coast. That at least true if you work for an employer that does not use artificial deadlines, but even then, once you realize it’s a bullshit tactic as those deadlines get moved all the time anyway, you just contribute at a sustainable pace that leaves you plenty of time for browsing Reddit and watching videos on YouTube. You can get there in a few years; in some jobs that’s how you start out.

As I have been coasting through life over the last few years, I was wondering what was missing. Then I began playing some obscure and rather difficult Japanese arcade video game that demands pretty solid execution. Make one mistake and, if you get a grip on the situation, you’ll be able to recover. If you don’t and you make another mistake, you’ll be hanging on for dear life. Maybe you can still salvage the situation. As you have to play very precisely, the game implicitly tries setting you up for failure, then you scramble to recover, and so on, until you make it through. Of course, the stakes get higher the farther you get because you can’t recover, you’ll have to start from the very beginning again. This game has no continue option.

When playing that game and getting into a tricky situation, after playing for a few weeks and getting better at it, I could notice how a sudden release of adrenalin made me hyper-focused. My heart rate shot up; I only focused on my screen and this game. It was fantastic. In the mean time, I managed to play through this game a few times, but I have a long way to go to master it. Thus, I still get to struggle. It may sound bizarre, but that kind of high-pressure situation, even though it is entirely artificial, is the first one I had in quite a while. I find it riveting to be exposed to them; probably adult life is a bit dull because you no longer sit high-pressure exams or compete in sports. In those situations, you competed on a level playing field. On your job, there are too many factors involved and luck (or fashion) plays too much of a role so you can’t really compare the performance of two people. Yet, play a game with a fixed ruleset, and you suddenly can compare yourself against others or at the very least against your past performances.

I think that withstanding stress is something you can learn. Some people have exam anxiety they never get a grip of. However, more commonly you prepare well for an exam, do the best you can and as you repeat this, you get used to the stress and learn to handle it. Maybe that is also why you can coast in adult life. It’s because you have learned to handle that kind of stress and know how to manage it. You no longer put off all work until days before the deadline or the examination date. Instead, you organize your work and plan ahead.

By efficiently planing ahead and improving your execution, you consequently toughen up psychologically until you reach a new normal that does no longer particularly excite you. In that case, it is probably a good idea to get out of your comfort zone. It’s a bit unfortunate that competition in sports is seemingly the exclusive reserve for the young — the adult teams in my city are much more about socializing and getting away from your wife and family than they are about making a serious effort. I have found it invigorating to strengthen my ability to deal with stress through that video game. Too bad that adult life is a bit too dull to allow for that in other settings.

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