It is not only natural to get stressed in high-stakes situations, it can actually be good. Yesterday we looked at how stress can decrease mortality risk; today we will see that it can increase performance under pressure as well.
Studies have found that students who are more stressed during exams and while studying for exams tend to remember the material better and outperform more laid back students. Similarly, Marines with higher spikes in stress hormones during interrogation are less likely to give away important information.
Also, police offers who have the biggest increases in heart rate during a hostage negotiation exercise are less likely to accidentally shoot the hostage.
The more stressed you are–palms sweating, heart thumping, hormones surging–during a high-stakes situation the better you are likely to perform.
Further, numerous studies have found that people who are told they perform well under pressure actually end up doing better on a subsequent nerve-racking task.
We have previously discussed how some people are genetically predisposed to do well under high levels of stress. But research also shows that, regardless of genes, we can all improve out high-stakes performance by viewing stress as natural and helpful rather than something to be avoided.