Perform or Panic? Challenge or Threat?
Reappraisal strategies for improving performance in a stressful situation
“A hero is somebody who voluntarily walks into the unknown” – Tom Hanks
Imagine you’re an athlete. You’ve spent years’ training. Building your skills, physique, confidence. The day has arrived. Today you compete for your nation. You enter the stadium and step into the unknown. Do you rise to the challenge? Or do you see a threat?
Now imagine being on the front line, tackling a huge blaze, responding to a terrorist attack, or being confronted with a global pandemic. Much like an athlete, you are required to cope under pressure and perform your best. Do you have the resources to cope?
Whilst alarming, it is not surprising that a Mind survey in 2019, revealed that a high percentage of emergency services staff and volunteers experience issues with their own mental health, with the ambulance service highest at 75.8% . Facing trauma or distressing situations was cited as the main cause of poor mental health for both ambulance and search-and-rescue services and has moved from the 6th to 2nd reason (since 2015) for both police and fire services .
Athletes train for years hoping that their preparation, knowledge, and skills will allow them to cope and perform at their best during a high-pressure event. This can be mirrored in the performance expected of individuals, in high-pressure jobs such as the emergency services. Whilst it may be in your job description to expect the unexpected, the key to winning that gold medal or saving someone’s life may be the difference between having the ability to perceive a stressful situation as positive or negative, or in other words as a ‘challenge’ or ‘threat’ state .
Apply sports performance psychology to help those of you in the emergency services, and others facing stressful situations, understand how your perceptions of such situations can influence your response.
- Understand what is meant by ‘challenge’ and ‘threat’ states
- Be able to recognise how each state influences your performance
- Provide reappraisal strategies for improving performance in stressful situations
What is the theory of challenge and threat states in athletes?
Athletes feel stress or pressure when there are unknown factors, there is actual or perceived harm (physical or self-esteem), and effort is required (psychological or physical) . Where this occurs- and clearly athletes want to perform to their best- researchers have identified that they, make psychological assessments in attempting to achieve their goal, known as cognitive appraisals .
Many situations faced by the emergency services can be seen in a similar light.
The cognitive appraisal process
In the most recent review of the process, by Meijen et al. (2020) it can be summarised as follows:
1. Primary appraisal: which state do you think you’re in?
- Challenge state: You feel the event you are facing is highly relevant to your goals, conditions are in your favour and you can succeed.
- Threat state: You still feel the event you are facing is highly relevant to your goals but think conditions are against you and there is little you can do to remove the threat.
2. Demand versus Resource appraisal: do you feel you have sufficient mental resources?
The good news is, having made the primary appraisal, even if initially you perceive a threat state, you can still move to a more positive mind set. Athletes will appraise the demands they face versus their mental resources to cope, leading to one of four states:
High Challenge State, Low Challenge State, Low Threat State, High Threat State
- High challenge: You feel in control of the situation and have all the mental resources you need to cope. Your emotions and perceptions of the situation are positive and even if negative emotions occur, you see them as helpful to performance. In addition, your physical response to stress supports your performance, e.g. Oxytocin, a hormone that helps counteract stress, is released if social support is perceived.
- Low challenge: Even though you believe the conditions of a situation are in your favour to succeed, you do not believe you can overcome the situation. In this state emotions are varied, but negative emotions are more likely to hinder performance.
- Low threat: You are motivated to achieve a goal, but the circumstances of the situation mean you are less likely to succeed. Despite this, you feel in control and believe you can overcome the difficult circumstances. Again, you will feel mixed emotions but these and physical responses are likely to support your performance.
- High threat: Here you perceive the situation as against you. You don’t feel you have the right resources to overcome the situation, lacking control and support. Negative emotions are experienced along with a physical response to stress that hinders performance, e.g. shaking.
How can you achieve your potential? Reappraisals.
“knowing how to promote a challenge state (or counteract a threat state) could enable the optimisation of performance during pressurised competition” 
The emergency services often face the unknown, creating many situational demands. Simply by understanding and reflecting on how you perceive stressful events can provide a foundation for self-awareness and trigger more helpful thought patterns , but it’s also valuable to have specific techniques that target cognitive appraisals and help achieve positive emotions or at least see negative emotions as helpful.
Reappraisal is a powerful strategy for emotional regulation, where you assess and change your emotions and reactions to a situation to enable you to respond in a more positive way . Here are some techniques to help with reappraisal:
- Arousal reappraisal: The physiological responses you feel to a stressful event, such as increased heart rate or sweaty palms are not harmful. When you start to feel physiological responses to stress, tell yourself these are helpful and beneficial to performance . Remember anxiety and excitement produce the same physiological response, so rather than suppressing anxiety and trying to be calm, reframe negative emotions to ones of exhilaration and high positive energy. This might be as simply as stating out loud “I feel exhilarated” .
- Cognitive reappraisal:
- Rational self-talk (and beliefs): Is what you’re thinking actually true? Having an inner dialogue that is logical has been found to increase performance . Rephrase your thoughts from irrational to rational. For example, “everything always goes wrong and I’m a failure”. Is this true, does EVERYTHING go wrong? Change this to “sometimes I will fail and things will go wrong but that does not make me a failure” .
- Can and can’t control: Don’t waste precious mental resources worrying about things beyond your control, instead focus on what you can control as well as noticing what is positive in the situation . For example, when faced with a frightening situation, you can’t change the circumstances but know you have the skills to perform because of your training.
- Instructional sets: Directions (instructional sets) that are challenge-state-focused can influence your response to a stressful situation . With your team create and write down a set of instructions that are likely to enhance a challenge state. For example, “you will be capable of achieving the task” or “you will rise to the challenge of this situation”. You could even write down ‘negative’ instructions in order to recognise the difference. A threat state example would be “you must finish this task as quickly as possible” .
- Imagery: Athletes find this effective but we can easily apply it to the work of the emergency services. Where emotions are negative, we tend to imagine the worst. Instead, picture yourself in positive state, performing at your best and achieving that goal .
- Training: If you continually find yourself feeling your resources are insufficient, mental skills training that specifically increases self-efficacy, perceived control and positive thinking can be beneficial . Reappraisal should also be practiced regularly to better understand how you can change negative thought patterns into more positive appraisals that are beneficial to performance .
“Sometimes emotions are very irrational and you have to work with them rather than constantly trying to understand them.” Steve Peters, author of The Chimp Paradox
- Faced with an emergency situation, understand that your initial emotions are determined by how in control and confident you feel. You’ll be in one of four states: high challenge; low challenge; low threat; or high threat.
- If not in a high challenge state, use reappraisal to help put yourself in a more positive state:
- Use rational self-talk
- Focus on what you can control rather than on what you can’t
- Recite those prior written instructions to support a challenge state
- Visualise yourself doing your job well.
Finally, although these strategies will be beneficial, if stress is layered on daily, we all have our breaking point and sometimes further psychological intervention is needed. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
 Mind (2019). Mental health in the emergency services. https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/campaigns/blue-light-support/our-blue-light-research/
 Lazarus, R.S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York, NY: Springer.
 Meijen, C., Turner, M., Jones, M., Sheffield, D., & McCarthy, P. (2020). A theory of challenge and threat states in athletes: A revised conceptualisation. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 11. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00126
 Hase, A., Hood, J., Moore, L. J., & Freeman, P. (2019). The influence of self-talk on challenge and threat states in performance. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 45. DOI:10.1016/j.psychsport.2019.101550
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