Challenge versus threat: The power of perspective

I recently wrote a blog post about the use of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy techniques for performance anxiety, and how suppressing the anxiety may not be the answer for everyone. I am continuing my discussion of this topic with a detour into the physiology behind performance anxiety and how it is possible to tweak your perspective to work with it and guide it to benefit you.

As I mentioned in my last post, performance anxiety is natural. When we step up to perform – whether that be in sport or another area such as public speaking, music performances or driving tests – it’s going to provoke a bit of anxiety. If there is a challenge or risk involved, anxiety pops up because we care about the outcome and the consequences of our performance. I like to see it as a cue that we are doing something that is important. If we didn’t care about any of it, we wouldn’t get anxious about what could go wrong.

In addition, the Yerkes-Dodson law suggests that some anxiety (physiological arousal) relates to improved performance… until it becomes too excessive, which is when it can start to harm performance on more challenging tasks.


So the question here could be: how do we reach the optimal level of “anxiety?”

There are various ways in which this can be approached, but the particular aspect I want to discuss today is our interpretation of that anxiety.

Challenge versus threat

When we enter into a performance scenario, our bodies let us know. We tend to experience an increased heart rate and blood pressure, and perhaps get that jittery “butterflies in the stomach” feeling. But the interesting thing is, the physiology behind performance anxiety can differ depending on how we perceive the situation, and vice versa.

According to the biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat, we automatically evaluate a performance situation on the basis of the demands we perceive it to present, and the resources we believe ourselves to have that we can use to tackle it. If we perceive our resources to meet or exceed the demands of the task, the situation is perceived as a challenge. If we perceived the demands to be greater than our resources, we perceive the situation to be a threat.

This isn’t simply a matter of asking ourselves whether we have the physical ability to carry out the necessary actions. This evaluation happens relative automatically and is influenced by factors such as uncertainty, familiarity, our and others’ expectations, presence of other people, danger, knowledge, history and skills.

So why is this relevant to performance anxiety?

Whether we perceive our situation as a challenge or a threat, our bodies prepare themselves for action via activation of the sympathetic-adrenomedullary axis (SAM), which causes our hearts to pump faster and arteries to dilate, meaning more blood is delivered to our brain and muscles. The challenge state is characterised by this increase in cardiac output and vasodilation, and it is hypothesised that this system functions to mobilise energy to our muscles and brain to facilitate the necessary physical activity.

However, when we perceive our situation to be more of a threat, there is also heightened activation in something called the pituitary-adrenocortical axis. This system inhibits the vasodilatory effects of the SAM, and therefore results in the same increased heart rate but without the increased delivery of blood to the muscles and brain. This system is hypothesised to facilitate withdrawal and hence less physical activity, which would explain why when we become over-anxious it can feel like our legs have turned to jelly.

In addition, both positive and negative emotions are experienced when in the challenge state, and our attention is directed to task-relevant cues. On the other hand, the threat state is characterised primarily by negative emotions and a focus on task-irrelevant cues.

Interestingly, despite the acknowledgement that negative emotions are still experienced during the challenge state, they are interpreted as more helpful than they are in the threat state.

So there you have it – our interpretation of a situation influences our physiology, and our physiology influences the way we feel in turn.

NB: the challenge and threat states are not entirely separate phenomena; they exist on more of a bipolar continuum rather than a dichotomous scale, i.e. we can experience a bit of both at the same time. But the research shows that when the challenge state is activated more strongly than the threat state, performance is generally better.

See the articles 1 and 2 in the references below for the detailed version of the above.


How do we activate the challenge state?

While research studies conducted in labs or artificial situations don’t always transfer simply to real-life situations, a number of methods have been identified that can induce a challenge state in various circumstances.

Alongside imagery (4), studies have successfully used gain framing (5), resource appraisals (6) and approach-related performance goals (7) to induce a challenge state.

Imagery has a powerful effect on our feelings, simply because images are heavily linked to emotions. Our brain also reacts to imagined images in a similar way to “real” images. Therefore by mentally rehearsing skills and visualising ourselves behaving in ways that correspond with our goals, we are more likely to elicit helpful thoughts and emotions, in addition to preparing ourselves for skilled action.

Gain framing – framing a situation as an opportunity for various gains – could also help us along the way to the challenge state by reducing the focus on threat and moving it toward where we can succeed or improve. Here are some questions that can be asked:

  1. How can I improve by engaging in this situation?
  2. Which skills do I get to showcase or work on here?
  3. How have I conquered challenges such as this in the past?
  4. In which ways can I succeed?
  5. How is this an opportunity?

Similarly, learning to make constructive appraisals of our own resources is going to make us feel more capable in the face of a challenge. Reflecting again on past success, the skills we have and our levels of motivation can draw our attention to where we are doing well, and hence boost confidence.

Finally, approach-related performance goals are important. I regularly discuss with people the significance of aiming to go toward something, instead of aiming to avoid or move away from something. We may want to avoid failing – but thinking about failing (whether that be losing, duffing a shot, missing a goal or slowing down) makes it more likely to occur, because our attention is fixated on it and hence not on what we need to be doing to perform well. Simply asking ourselves what we want to achieve instead of what we want to avoid can be effective here. What do we need to do to perform well?

My assumption is that all of these things in combination would be most powerful, and if we are prepared to experience the physical feelings (or “anxiety”) that come along with performance situations, we are in a better position to access the challenge state.



1. Moore, L. J., Vine, S. J., Wilson, M. R., & Freeman, P. (2012). The effect of challenge and threat states on performance: An examination of potential mechanisms. Psychophysiology, 49, 1417-1425. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2012.01449.x

2. Seery, M. D. (2011). Challenge or threat? Cardiovascular indexes of resilience and vulnerability to potential stress in humans. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35, 1603-1610. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.03.003

3. Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., & Cross, S. L. (2012). Cardiovascular indices of challenge and threat states predict competitive performance. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 86, 48-57. doi:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2012.08.004

4. Williams, S. E., Cumming, J., & Balanos, G. M. (2010). The use of imagery to manipulate challenge and threat appraisal states in athletes. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32, 339-358.

5. Seery, M. D., Weisbuch, M., & Blascovich, J. (2009). Something to gain, something to lose: the cardiovascular consequences of outcome framing. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 73, 308-312. doi:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2009.05.006

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

7. Chalabaev, A., Major, B., Cury, F., & Sarrazin, P. (2009). Physiological markers of challenge and threat mediate the effects of performance-based goals on performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 991-994. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2009.04.009

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