I’m sitting behind a long table, flanked by a marketing manager on my right and an entrepreneur on my left. We are an admission jury at an elite French business school. The candidate seated before us has spent the last two years toiling in a high-pressure preparatory school to get ready for this interview and the entrance exams that preceded it.
Right now, he’s falling apart. He can’t collect his thoughts. His answers to our questions are brief and incoherent. He is most likely unaware that he is continuously adjusting his glasses with visibly shaking hands. It’s painful to watch, and I want to give him a chance to reset.
“Take a minute and breathe,” I tell him. “You have plenty of time left.” He pants in distress.
“What’s happening right now?” I ask him. It’s a classic coaching question, designed to restore focus on the current moment. But he’s not fully present yet. Instead, he’s busy tightening his own noose. “I have no right to feel stressed. This is difficult, of course—but everyone else manages okay. I should be able to handle it.”
The candidate is experiencing what’s known as acute stress: it’s novel, unpredictable, and it represents a threat to a primary goal (in this case, admission to the business school, as well as the more general but no less vital goal of feeling good about oneself).
It is true that everyone encounters challenging conditions that can induce stress. But how well we continue to function has a great deal to do with how we assess the situation and how we respond. When we view the conditions as a challenge for which we have the resources needed to respond, stress can actually give us an edge in performance, as when a well-trained athlete gets butterflies in her stomach right before a competition. When we view the stressful conditions as a threat, something for which we are not equipped, our performance is likely to deteriorate. And if we don’t know how to catch the signs of a mounting stress response and take productive steps to counteract it, it can escalate, causing both our performance and well-being to suffer.
When we’re stressed, our bodies increase the production and release of the stress hormone cortisol. Research has linked elevated levels of stress and cortisol to impaired working memory—the capacity to store and manipulate information for short periods of time. Elevated stress levels can also impair the ability to retrieve memories. Thus, even though our candidate had spent many hours practicing for the interview, he wasn’t able to retrieve what he had learned during his practice. That’s because our ability to pay attention is compromised under stress. We may develop tunnel vision, overlooking vitally important pieces of information. Decision-making suffers as well; when stressed, we’re less likely to give full and systematic appraisal to all alternatives, and the quality of our decisions is more likely to be suboptimal.
Stress is thus like a vortex that can suck attention into it, consuming our cognitive resources—if we throw ourselves into the vortex, that is. One of the keys to staying grounded is whether we are able to connect to our inner resources in the presence of stress—or whether we lose the ability to access them. Interpreting stress as a sign of weakness, as the candidate did—and as many of us do in our daily lives—is dysfunctional. Instead of helping us to respond effectively, the negative self-evaluation we heap on top of the stressful circumstances increases anxiety, erodes self-confidence, and undermines our ability to direct our attention to productive problem-solving. Stress can cause us to lose perspective. It also breeds isolation and a sense that we are alone in our suffering, which only makes the stress worse.
Recognizing what’s happening in the body is the first step to shifting what’s happening in the mind. Any one of the classic physiological stress responses, such as breathing hard or feeling one’s heart race without physical exertion, perspiring more than usual, feeling one’s mouth go dry, clenching one’s jaw, noticing tension, numbness or tingling in the muscles, hunching or cringing, provides us with an opportunity to forestall the escalation of stress. Instead of trying to ignore these symptoms, the counterintuitive yet highly effective approach is to pay attention to them.
The acronym RAIN, a tool used by many meditation teachers—originally developed by Michele McDonald—is a simple yet powerful way to handle a stress episode. It allows us to shift our perspective of the stressor from threat to manageable challenge, and to activate our own resources to meet the challenge with equanimity:
- Recognition: Consciously take notice of what is occurring in your body and mind. For example, “My mouth feels dry and there is a pit in my stomach. I feel like an idiot.”
- Acceptance: Acknowledge that the stress response is present and allow it to be here. This doesn’t mean that you’re happy about it, but giving up the effort to resist it is, paradoxically, the quickest way to help it subside.
- Investigation: Ask yourself calmly what thoughts and emotions are present, what stories you are telling yourself. Following this technique, the candidate might have answered, “I can’t believe I sound so lame. I’m afraid that I will lose this opportunity, that I will not be admitted to business school, that I will feel like a failure in front of my family and friends, and that I won’t have a successful career.”
- Non-identification: Having recognized, accepted, and explored the implications of your stress symptoms, the final step is to realize that although you are experiencing them, they do not define you. “I am having the thought that I may feel like a failure” is very different from and much more manageable than “I am a failure.”
Using this tool helps you to regain your strength and sense of control, and to proceed in a calm, rational manner. RAIN harnesses the power of self-compassion to shift our perspective and reconnect to our inner resources, thereby reducing the potential negative effect of stressful conditions on our performance and well-being.
Just as stress is not a sign of weakness, neither is self-compassion. Self-compassion is not a way to avoid facing up to one’s challenges or limitations. Quite to the contrary, it is a force for facing those things head on and moving through and past them. Self-compassion enables us to look straight at the most daunting challenges we face in our lives without activating the stress response that can disable our ability to deal with them effectively.