I want to run you through a demonstration I have used in workshops and with individual clients. It’s called Stress and a Glass of Water. I didn’t invent the analogy, but have used something like this to help people understand the concept of stress for a long time.

If I were to ask you How heavy is this  glass of water? What would your answer be? 8 oz? Maybe 12 oz? 

Absolute weight doesn’t matter really. It depends on how long you hold it. If you hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If you hold it for an hour, you’ll have an ache in your arm. If you hold it for a day, your arm will feel numb, it may feel paralyzed or it fall off (or so I’m told). In each case, the weight of the water doesn’t change, but the longer it’s held, the heavier it feels.

Stress and anxiety are like the glass of water. Think about them for a short time and everything is fine. Think about them for a longer period of time and they begin to feel uncomfortable. And if you think about them all the time, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything or moving forward.

I can add to this analogy for you as well. What happens when we add more water?  What if you fill the glass to the top? Things tend to get shaky.  You have difficulty focusing and water spills out. Now you worry about the water that has spilled too. If someone is talking to you now you have difficulty paying attention and holding the glass still. You’ve also been taught that spilling is bad and you should be ashamed of your self for letting those emotions, er I forgot water spill. So now you can’t focus, you feel shame and to top it off your arm hurts.

You might just consider to put the damn glass down for a while. While it is down and feeling returns to your arm, you can clearly use your skills to deal with the task which caused you to hold the glass of water for so long. Most people choose to continue to hold the glass of water rather than put it down. Sometimes it can even be of help to release (spill) a bit of water. There is no shame in spilling a bit of H2O, after all it’s just water.

Athletes and business people who have heard that being mentally tough means battling stress by holding their arms up to keep the glass of water from spilling have missed the point. Toughness isn’t enduring pain for little reason, mental toughness is about understanding that emotionally intelligent people sometimes put the glass down and figure out a better strategy. When you allow stress to interfere with your enjoyment or performance in sports or business, you are just waiting for your arm to fall off. Rather than be paralyzed, take action. This is in part what mental training is all about. Learning the skills of when to hold it up and when to just put the damn thing down.