How to Harness Stress and Make it Work to Your Advantage

When wisely handled, stress helps to banish fatigue and improve performance. Most of the world’s work is done by people who would feel tired if they did not know how to rouse themselves to carry on rather than knuckle under. Stress also makes life more colourful and rich. When we step up the production of our hormonal power house we think more clearly and work more creatively. We’re also happier and enjoy a more vigorous sex life. Experiments show that students laugh more at clips of comedy films if they are given a prior injection of adrenalin to increase their level of arousal. This explains the humour which flourishes naturally, and seemingly paradoxically, in times of adversity, among soldiers in the trenches or displaced people in ghettoes. It also explains the levity of generals on the eve of battle, an oddity sometimes attributed to the joie de combattre. Oliver Cromwell, that most dour and God-fearing of all military leaders, was often given to fits of giggling when under tension. This happened before the Battle of Naseby, when according to one contemporary reporter: ‘He did laugh so excessively as if he had been drunk, and his eyes sparkled with spirits.’

Parents of young children know they can make generally make their offspring laugh by involving them in anxiety-creating games of peek-a-boo. In the same way generations of artful swains have discovered they can often melt the resistance of their girl friends by sitting them in the darkened back row of a cinema during the showing of a horror movie. Once one emotion is quickened, all feelings are heightened. Thus there is a narrow gap between laughter and tears, and only a small bridge to be crossed between arousing anxiety and stirring passion. This has been proved by several fascinating psychological studies.

In one series of experiments research workers from the University of Columbia asked male students

to cross one of two bridges which had been erected across the Capilano River for the purpose of the test. One of these bridges was a rickety construction of boards, perilously suspended by wires 230 feet above the river. The other was a solid structure built only ten feet above the water level. As they crossed the bridges the students were approached by a male or female interviewer and asked to complete a questionnaire and perform a brief psychological test. They were then given the interviewer’s phone number and told they could use it if they wanted to get further details of the experiment. Analysis of the responses showed that men who confronted a female interviewer as they crossed the dangerous bridge were nearly 60 per cent more likely to provide sexual imagery in their responses than those who met her on the stable bridge. Even more revealing was the discovery that whereas half the men phoned the girls they met while making the hazardous crossing, this was done by only one in eight of the men who made their encounters on the lower, safer bridge. This suggests that stress arousal can add zest to all aspects of life, in the bedroom as well the battlefield and boardroom.


(This item first appeared

in Farewell to Fatigue: the 28-Step Vitality Programme, second hand copies of which can still be bought online from Abe Books or Amazon for just over £2 a copy, a price which includes postage and packing.)

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