‘Positive Stress’… or Bullfighting 101…

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Did you ever wonder how corrida bulls are trained? Well, while camping in the south of France, Alessandro Biscaccianti, Expert in Change Management and Teams’ Effectiveness, had the opportunity to exchange about this his neighbor of tent who happened to be a “bull trainer” and “bull psychologist”. Yes, this job exists and consists in prepping bulls to react ‘appropriately’ during a corrida and taking care of “traumatized” bulls. Let me share with you what that bull trainer explained regarding the main principles of the kind of training his ‘patients’ were submitted to.


The trainer would begin by submitting the young bull, which is quietly grazing in his fields, to a ‘stroke’, a slightly stressful triggering event (the famous “red rag”). Taken by surprise, the animal perceives this act as a danger, an aggression, a threat; it therefore reacts very strongly and in a very short time, with a first defense reaction: sometimes fleeing and more generally attacking, the latter being the performance sought by the trainer.


Once out of danger, the bull would rest to recover energy and replenish the deep resources he just used and which are significantly higher than those called upon under normal conditions.


As soon as the bull’s stress level starts to go down, meaning that the bull stops responding and calms down, the trainer submits it to a new ‘stroke’. This time, to produce the same level of reaction, the ‘stroke’ must somehow be more intense than the previous one. The exercise is repeated again and again, with increasingly strong ‘strokes’ but which result in proportionately lower reactions (you can see in the figure that orange intervals are becoming smaller). Like in a dependence state, these reactions start to become increasingly close in terms of ‘performance’ since the bull is by then seeking his ‘fix’ as he becomes ‘addicted’ to the underlying neurotransmitters and hormones causing the reaction (note the declining performance gaps). At the same time, the bull needs more time to rest and recover (refer to the blue intervals become wider).


The purpose of the trainer through this ‘protocol’ is to create the conditions for the bull to become addicted to neurobiological substances (hormones and neurotransmitters) released during this process, and therefore to become addicted to the ‘strokes’ which it may be facing during the corrida so as to ensure that the ‘performance’ of the bull is ‘high’, but still under control. In particular, the trainer seeks to increase the capacity of the bull to endure suffering and to attack relentlessly while being just below the level at which it might get too excited and become dangerous. You’ve probably seen at least once a video of a bull freaking out and starting to jump all over the place… In addition, the trainer seeks to avoid a panic from the bull making it refuse the confrontation and stop in the middle of the arena or even not leave his box (in the latter case, the bull would need ‘therapy’ so that the training investment would not be lost, hence the trainer’s additional title as “bull psychologist”…)


No need to spell it out for you to understand that this situation is actually very similar to the ones you might live in stressful working environments (see one of my previous posts), where – sometimes perverse – managers create the conditions to make you call upon your deep resources and every ounce of energy available, causing you anxiety or distress and then potentially leading you to depressions or burnouts.


This addictive process is even described by some, with involuntary cynicism perhaps, as ‘positive stress’ sincerely believing in it… and perhaps you too do belong to these ‘believers’…


So, let’s see if we can put bring back some common sense into the discussion and stop conveying false and dangerous beliefs…


Many people think (and believe…) they should be under some level of stress to be effective and produce better performance. They feel constraints and difficulties as powerful and beneficial stimulants and therefore talk about ‘positive stress’. But from where comes this idea of ‘positive Stress’ in the first place?


Well, we actually owe it to Hans Selye, an endocrinologist who initially explored the concept of stress and then distinguished between two kinds:

  • Eustress: literally ‘good stress’, qualifying the impact of ‘positive’ stressors which are rapidly resolved;
  • Distress: literally ‘bad stress’, qualifying the impact of ‘negative’ stressors, which tend to last in time.


At the same time, Selye explained that the human body cannot actually discern between distress and eustress! According to him, both generate the same nonspecific physiological responses (release of adrenaline, cortisol, etc.), can be tough on the body, are cumulative in nature (despite differences depending on the resilience of the person), and are thus addictive.


Selye also emphasized that both ‘eustress’ and ‘distress’ go through three stages:

  • Alarm stage: eliciting Fighting, Fleeing and Freezing responses and making us more alert;
  • Resistance stage: like for all drugs, an addictive state happens in the case of prolonged exposure to neurotransmitters and hormones triggering the above-mentioned reactions with a dysfunctional adaptation of the body and psyche;
  • Exhaustion stage: wearing out of adaptation and resistance mechanisms, as maintaining oneself indefinitely under Stress (even if ‘positive’!) is impossible (even if one perceives oneself as particularly ‘smart’ about it…!).


In the light of what’s explained above, if the impact of ‘eustress’ and ‘distress’ on our body and our psyche is essentially the same and if it ends in exhaustion, how can there be a frontier line, a difference in the consequences between ‘positive’ stress and ‘negative’ stress? It is clear that ‘positive’ stress is nothing more than a myth, if not nonsense!


In a next post I will show you how to function differently by triggering in yourself what is called a ‘Flow’ state, a gift of nature that you can achieve without (necessarily) becoming a Zen Master :D


For the meantime, let me just tell you that Flow states can also be contagious… in a good way ;-)