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Back To Blog > How to Sustain Performance Under Extreme Stress

This post is by Anthony Savage of Sparta Health

Humans can achieve amazing feats in difficult, challenging, and stressful circumstances.  Scaling Everest, missions to the Moon and even getting that vital but complex report into the boss just in time for the deadline, despite your laptop crashing and the coffee machine being out of order.  These are all great achievements in difficult and stressful situations.  Some people thrive under pressure.  Others have learnt to handle pressure productively.  What can we learn from them? 

We know that prolonged exposure to stress, workload, and fatigue is a key factor in degraded performance[1].   It’s for that reason that researchers are interested in studying how crews on board the International Space Station (ISS) work and live together within environments which are isolated, confined, and extreme (ICE)[2].  What we do know from someone who is noted for sustaining performance within a different type of “ice” environment, is that deliberate practice can pay off:  Wim Hof, known as “the Iceman” has clocked up numerous Guinness World Records for athletic achievements in freezing temperatures.  In 2000, Hof set the Guinness World Record for the furthest swim under ice.  A training session the day before ended when Hof’s corneas started to freeze[3].  Hof attributes his resilience to daily practice of meditation, ice-baths and deep breathing[4].  For those of us who’d like something of Hof’s grit, simply committing to greater breathing awareness and using the breath to support stress management can be an empowering tool[5]

Having an understanding of stress helps in considering what skills, attitudes and approaches are best suited to sustaining performance under duress.  One way to think about stress is using the transactional model of stress[6].  Stress is a result of the way a complex individual relates to a complex environment.  Individuals vary in the ways in which they appraise the stressor and it is this appraisal, which is at the heart of coping, responding and even thriving when faced with the stressor.  For example, when faced with a challenge, we will complete a primary appraisal and analyse how much of a challenge or problem we face.  Our secondary appraisal considers whether we have the means and resources to cope with this challenge and the responses available to us whichmay well include a process of re-appraisal to try and then evaluate coping strategies.  Having a range of positive coping strategies available to us as well as a strong sense of self-efficacy (the extent or strength of one’s belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals) has been shown to support people in managing challenge and difficulty[7]

So, positive coping strategies?  Well, they’re not unsurprisingly the short-term fixes and defence mechanisms we often turn to: denial that there is a problem, or using alcohol or drugs to self-medicate.  Such strategies reduce our ability to engage our brain’s frontal cortex to allow for clear and reasoned decision making needed in effective appraisal.  Rather, positive coping strategies include planning (allowing us to think through what is within our locus of control), use of social support (building our resource network), managing physiological responses (through, for example calm and deep breathing, as previously noted) and positive reinterpretation (seeing the stressor as a challenge and growth opportunity rather than a threat)[8].  Such approaches support us in the type of clear, calm thinking that allows our brains to continue problem solving and working despite the difficulties faced, as well as opening up possibilities for that all-important continual reappraisal that facilitates adaptation. 

Importantly, success builds hardiness and resilience.  Our brains are pliable and adaptable.  Once we begin to become more adept at using positive coping strategies, our sense of self-appraisal and self-efficacy becomes increasingly positive.  We have proof that we can take proactive steps towards problem solving.   We get better at staying calm, poised and efficient at responding to the stressor. 

So, whether you have ambitions to be part of the next Space mission, camp in the Artic, or just want to handle the pressures of work with greater serenity: remembering the transactional model can be helpful.  First, appraise the challenge.  Next, appraise your resources and strategies for response, adapt and re-appraise as needed, and, remember to breathe!

About Anthony Savage 

Anthony Savage is the Medical Services Manager at Sparta Health, having joined the team in 2017 and is responsible for the overall operational delivery of our high quality services to our clients. He has a solid background in workplace physiology, as well over 12 years of delivering, and holding senior management positions, for leading injury and condition management providers.

He is known for his innovative approach in his design and execution of services and his ability to build enduring relationships.


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About Sparta Health

Sparta Health – providing leading health care and management services for staff members, employers, insurers, solicitors and mutuals across the UK. You can contact us on:

Tel: 0345 872 2161


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