As an international educator, author and speaker with a doctorate in psychology, Terry Lyles understands stress — but it’s not what you think. Lyles has spent years helping everyone from students to Fortune 500 execs and world-class athletes come to grips with not just managing stress, but actually harnessing this natural response as a positive.
Lyles has dedicated his career to teaching people from all walks of life how to enhance their own performance by using basic psychological and physiological tools and practices to embrace good stress.
Lyles realizes this idea can be hard to grasp, given our collective maladaptation to stress. In other words, according to Lyles, humans living in 2019 have not given stress a fair shake. We assume the worst of the uncomfortable feeling and seek to eliminate it from our lives whenever possible, instead of embracing it when the moment is right.
In “Performance Under Pressure,” Lyles takes readers on a journey to get to know (and even love) the good side of stress. He explains the role of basic human development in causing stress, the keys to letting go of long-ingrained resistance to stress, and tools to navigate and ultimately master stress to work for us, among other things.
Grateful caught up with Lyles to talk about how being under pressure (cue the Queen song that’s now stuck in your head) can work for you.
On the thing everyone gets wrong about managing stress
GRATEFUL: You’ve been studying stress and psychology for years. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about the problem of stress and how we manage — or fail to manage — it?
TL: The biggest problem with stress is the misconception that there isn’t a good side to that coin. Most people, whether in the medical, psychological or health care community, only view stress as a bad thing. So all the articles you see, the research, the surveys, typically say stress is killing you; get it out of your life. You have to reduce stress, reduce stress, reduce stress — but that’s the problem, in my opinion.
GRATEFUL: What is the other side of that coin?
TL: [It’s in] a book I wrote years ago called “Good Stress.” So “Performance Under Pressure” is, how do you take bad stress and convert it to good stress? Because it’s gravity. Stress is gravity. It’s not good nor bad. You just have to prepare for the landing.
If you like exhilaration and jumping and falling, that’s grea; use a parachute, hit a pool, do something. But if you don’t prepare for the impact, it could be your last jump. So again, stress is not the problem, no more than gravity is — but we have to cooperate with the laws of gravity.
GRATEFUL: What determines if stress is good or bad? What’s the difference?
TL: The first thing is to understand the parameters of stress to understand the science of stress — which simply means [knowing] what the limits are that makes stress good or bad. It’s like driving your car: You can overdrive your car and speed and get a ticket, or go out of control and crash, or you can drive within the safety of that car and get from point A to point B and have no issues. So we have to understand the limits or the boundaries of stress.
But — and this is part of the book, it’s actually the subtitle of the book — it’s also important to crack your personal stress code. We all have a stress code that needs to be unlocked. It’s like a passcode. And if you don’t understand how to unlock your own passcode, it’s really difficult to transition from what you consider bad stress to good stress as a potential. Cracking that code is the answer, and that’s why I wrote the book.
On the importance of the stress code
GRATEFUL: Can you talk a little more about the stress code and why it’s so important for people to understand theirs when learning to master stress?
TL: A survey in my new book specifically takes readers through an awareness of who we are individually. So, we have four components to us as human beings: who we are mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. Those are all like four wheels on the same car, and they must be aligned correctly to get optimal performance. You don’t have to have four bad flats on your car to have a bad day going to work. You only need one, you know what I mean? And then it just messed your day up.
So, in the same way, I can be really good mentally, spiritually and physically, but emotionally I’m a wreck. Performing under pressure is understanding, “Why do I feel this way emotionally, and how do I correct it?” It’s knowing how to utilize the premise of cracking your own code to understand what you need to be doing personally to counterbalance an area that’s suffering due to stress.
On technological stress and accepting that no one is truly balanced
GRATEFUL: What’s the first piece of advice you’d offer for someone cracking their own stress code for the first time?
TL: For everyone approaching stress, it’s about [knowing] that you’re not aligned — not “balanced.” “Balance” is an antiquated word. I don’t know anybody that’s balanced today. I used to think I was balanced until technology hit. I actually have a whole section on technological stress in the book, because we’re getting millions of bytes of data thrown at us every day through email, Instagram, Facebook, text messages, phone calls, voicemails, and it’s overwhelming. If you don’t navigate that correctly, it will have an adverse effect, and a lot of our society is feeling the effects of that now.
On how raising a special-needs child led him to understand performing under pressure
GRATEFUL: What led you to focus your work on stress and performance under pressure?
TL: I have three boys. My 34-year-old child [has] special needs. He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t walk. He’s in a wheelchair. He’s diapered and fed as an infant. He weighs about 65 pounds and looks like he’s 6 or 7 years old. And I learned how to deal with pressure over the past three decades by handling him, his seizures and his brain chemistry issues.
He’s outlived his life expectancy over and over again, and I learned early on that it’s what Nietzsche said: If it doesn’t kill you, it might make you stronger. I didn’t know that at the time, but I realized that stress was really not my problem. I just needed to change my attitude and perspective about it. As a result, my son has become the greatest impetus of everything that I do, because I was able to flip the coin from bad stress to good stress. So that’s how it all started.
GRATEFUL: That’s such a powerful story. What was making that shift like? Working with and caring for a loved one who has special needs is obviously one of the most intense forms of stress a person could face. Many people might struggle with finding the good side of that coin.
TL: You know, it just became gravity. After three years of just struggling … from his birth til 3 years old, I thought I could fix him. You’ll do anything for your kids. It’s the most bizarre thing. You just lose rationale. You literally will give your life for your kids. [Here, Lyles paused and audibly choked back tears.] I finally realized that it wasn’t up to me; I couldn’t save him, and I couldn’t fix him.
The first day we put Brandon in a wheelchair, we went to the mall. I [had] his little brother (who is now 31) tied to the wheelchair with a leash because he was hyperactive, and Mom wasn’t there. And Brandon was so happy to be in the chair [that] he was making noises and screaming at the top of his lungs. Everybody [was] looking, and I said, “You’ve got to relax, man, because all these people are looking at me.”
And I realized how screwed up I was — not him. He was good with himself. So, I knelt in front of his chair, and I committed to him that day, when he was 3 years old, 31 years ago, and I said, “I will never, ever be ashamed of you the rest of my life. I’m not going to fix you. I’m going to fix myself, and I’m going to tell the world how not to do what I was trying to do.”
Whatever people’s stress is, it’s OK. You just have to flip the coin and make it work.
On the hardest part of cracking your stress code
GRATEFUL: When it comes to making that switch and flipping the coin, though, what do people struggle with most? What’s the part of your system for mastering stress tends to take the longest to click with people?
TL: It varies based upon people’s presenting issues. But the neutralizer to all people, in general, is just realizing that stress is not your enemy. Physiologically, it’s understanding that we’re designed for stress.
Actually, the most stressful event in life is our own birth. There is a catastrophic phenomenon that takes place, physiologically, at birth — and we survive it because we have the DNA for stress. We human beings are the toughest science project on the planet. And when people really understand that, then they start to realize, “I’m not afraid. I just have issues like everyone else.” I tell people, “Look, I’m probably the most screwed up guy in the room. I just have a few more tools, maybe, than some of you.”
Grateful: You work a lot with top performers in business and athletics. Is the concept of performance under pressure something that anyone can master, or is the system really geared to people in the most stressful fields?
TL: One-quarter of one pound of air pressure in a tire — that much air in one tire can make the difference in winning and losing in racing. And most of us are just that far away from being what we want to be. We just don’t know which tire to put that puff of air in: mental, emotional, spiritual or physical. So, I just empower people to find out. When you take the stress survey in the book, figure out what your lowest zone is. Go there. Read that zone more carefully than the rest. Do the work, and all the other zones will follow that success going upward. It’s really not rocket science. It’s all about just identifying what your stressors are and how to combat it, not get away from it.
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