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Perform or Panic? Challenge or Threat?

Reappraisal strategies for improving performance in a stressful situation

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“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% [1]. 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 [1].

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 [2].

Aim:

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.

Objectives:

  • 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) [3]. 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 [3].

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.
Click below to download full Challenge or Threat PDF file summarising the blog.

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” [3]

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 [4], 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 [5]. 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 [6]. 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” [7].
  • 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 [6]. 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” [8].
    • 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 [9]. 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 [10]. 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” [10].
    • 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 [11].
  • 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 [9]. 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 [9].

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

Take-home messages:

  • 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.

References

[1] Mind (2019). Mental health in the emergency services. https://www.mind.org.uk/news-campaigns/campaigns/blue-light-support/our-blue-light-research/

[2] Lazarus, R.S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York, NY: Springer.

[3] 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

[4] 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

[5] Moreira, G. J. F., Sahi, R., Ninova, E., Parkinson, C., & Silvers, J. A. (2020). Performance and belief-based emotion regulation capacity and tendency: Mapping links with cognitive flexibility and perceived stress. Emotion. DOI:10.1037/emo0000768

[6] Moore, L., Wilson, M., Vine, S. J., & Freeman, P. (2015). Reappraising threat: How to optimise performance under pressure. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 37, 339-343. DOI: 10.1123/jsep.2014-0186

[7] Brooks, A. W. (2013). Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of experimental psychology, 143(3), 1144-1158. DOI:10.1037/a0035325

[8] Turner, M. J., Kirkham, L., & Wood, A. G. (2018). Teeing up for success: The effects of rational and irrational self-talk on the putting performance of amateur golfers. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 38, 148-153. DOI:10.1016/j.psychsport.2018.06.012

[9] Fletcher, D., & Sarkar, M. (2016). Mental fortitude training: An evidence based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 7(3), 135-157. DOI:10.1080/21520704.2016.1255496

[10] Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., Barker, J. B., & Coffee, P. (2014). Manipulating cardiovascular indices of challenge and threat state using resource appraisals. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 94, 9-18. DOI:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2014.07.004

[11] Haslam. A. S., Fransen, K., & Boen, F. (2020). The new psychology of sport and exercise: The social identity approach. Sage publications ltd.

[12] Peters, S. (2012). The chimp paradox: The mind management programme for confidence, success and happiness. Vermilion.


Thank-you so much for reading my blog. I hope it has been helpful and would love to have your feedback.


10 thoughts on “Home

  1. I fall back on Experience and previous similar situations to give me confidence when under pressure or facing threats ( I am a self employed salesman currently contracted to 4 companies and paid to perform ( grow sales v big plus chip companies)
    Experience brings confidence if you are not naturally confident. Confidence brings performance ( along with the training , preparation etc)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks David for your thoughtful response. Good point about natural confidence, hopefully the blog might support those that feel less confident by helping them to recognise ‘threats’ or ‘challenges’.

      Like

  2. Having previously worked in elite sport, and now in the emergency services, I can see the parallels you have drawn and I agree. More often than not, when attending a higher risk incident, I feel we will sit in the ‘low threat’ box, where often the odds are stacked against us initially, but by applying our training, assessing the threat and utilising tactics available to us, we overcome our anxieties – we don’t have a choice but to do so! We do have models and tools to use to assist when making decisions, and assist with rationalising situations. An example of this is the National Decision Model, primarily utilised by the police, but also adopted by other emergency services as part of ‘JESIP’. This assists everyone, but primarily supervisors, with the decision making process, and this can help push people more into ‘the green’. Following this process, and rationalising situations, will give confidence and as David said, this will bring performance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Really appreciate your comments which I found very helpful. Thank-you for directing me to the National decision model and the JESIP model. I can see how use of such models can support individuals whether they find themselves in a ‘threat’ or ‘challenge’ state. Many thanks.

      Like

  3. This is a very interesting piece. I currently work as a medical registrar and certainly empathise with the pressure of being confronted with a global pandemic! Reading this I can recognise the difference that being in a ‘threat’ rather than a ‘challenge’ state has made in my work; with the increased levels of acutely unwell patients recently I have fallen in to those negative patterns of thought (“there’s not enough time”, “there’s nothing I can do to make this situation better”) so it’s helpful to have the tools to recognise these and know what I can do to improve upon them. Recognising that these states can make a difference to my performance and mental health is important too. I’ll try out some of those reappraisal tools with my juniors – especially focusing on what you can control and rational self-talk!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. In the current pandemic situation there have been many changes to working practices to those of us working in the emergency services. From a personal perspective and from recent experiences, it seems more important than ever to understand the current working protocols and to know one’s colleagues and their capabilities as fully as possible. The confidence gained from that in-depth knowledge can help to allay any fears and thereby maintain focus on the challenges and threats that arise. Efficiency can be increased and mistakes reduced. The article is helpful to use both during the situations that we face and as a reflective model for debriefing afterwards

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting, I’m a great believer in ensuring you have sufficient mental bandwidth by training in harder situations that you should be working.

    The more pressure and stress in training, the more likely I feel we are to perform when up against it. Less stress on scene =better Mental Health for me

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve read the article and comments with great interest. I currently work in a front line role within the Police and, as others have made mention, recognise that early in my career I would have been in the high threat stage as I put in to practice the training I had been given. Over time I learnt coping mechanisms or just built up my experience dealing with certain scenario types. As I sit now I’m 17 years in service and can reflect on that time to understand that I have moved into high challenge (or been there got the t-shirt mode as I often see it) and I am fortunate enough not to have had any mental health issues as a result of my work.
    Articles like this help managers within the emergency services better understand the impact on staff and why they operate in a certain way at times which helps us shape our support packages now that mental health is openly discussed and not a taboo subject.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I found this really interesting. Working on the front line as a PCSO for 14 years, like others have said that in the early stages of my career i would of been in the High Threat stage,(rabbit in highlights situation especially when single crewed). But with getting older, personal and work experience I have had, I would say that I would sit in the high challenge stage, this is also due to the ongoing learning/training that we have about the National Decision Model, also debriefing situations with colleagues helps as you then learn from your experiences.
    I think reading this 14 years ago would of helped me understand the how colleagues reacted to situations and how i dealt with things when debriefing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for the article JM. I think the idea of ‘spin-out’ application of psychological strategies developed to support sports performance into other domains is a really productive approach that can help a large number of people in a range of diverse situations. I was fortunately enough to be involved in some research that looked at resilience and it’s relationships with well-being and general health in Australian Ambulance Service Paramedics (https://doi.org/10.1177/1534765610396727 ).

    One of the main conclusions was that there should be more in the way of resilience interventions for paramedics and paramedical students to protect their well-being. I would suggest that your article JM goes a long way in achieving that suggestion; providing accessible and useable strategies for people working the demanding area of emergency services.

    Liked by 1 person

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