A Conversation with One of the World’s Foremost Experts on the Psychology of Stress & Human Performance, Rebecca Heiss, PhD.

A Conversation with One of the World’s Foremost Experts on the Psychology of Stress & Human Performance, Rebecca Heiss, PhD.

Rebecca Heiss, PhD, is an evolutionary biologist and stress physiologist who empowers the current and next generation of leaders to live more, fear(less) lives.  Through her deep understanding of how evolution has shaped our brains in a less than optimal fashion, Dr. Heiss breaks down the barriers that hold us back and helps us to live lives of meaning and purpose by playing ALL-IN, even when we are afraid.  A science-backed leadership and performance expert, Dr. Heiss teaches audiences, including business leaders, parents, and students, how to use stress as a tool of empowerment, embrace our worthiness, and recognise the power we all have to change our brains, behaviours and outcomes to exceed what we thought was possible.  Dr. Heiss is the author of INSTINCT, and founder of icueity, a 360-review app and self-awareness tool that gives users continuous, valuable, anonymous feedback from people they trust that confirms or contradicts what they believe to be true about themselves. A passionate educator, Dr. Heiss spent much of her early career in the classroom at high school and college levels, teaching students entrepreneurial thinking and impact-based learning. 

In this interview I speak to Dr. Rebecca Heiss, one of the world’s foremost experts on the psychology of stress. We discuss the fundamental nature of stress, and how to harness stress for human performance.  

Q: How has evolution shaped our stress response? 

[Dr. Rebecca Heiss]: Many people assume that they understand what stress truly is. Yet, I believe our collective definition might be somewhat misguided. Hans Selye, often regarded as the pioneer in stress research, characterized it as the body’s non-specific response to any demand. On the surface, this might sound fairly neutral. It’s easy to link stress with the challenges of daily commutes or work responsibilities. However, it also encompasses less obvious demands like our body’s need to eat or even our morning trips to the restroom. Such instances are stress responses from our body. So, rather than categorizing stress as either good or bad, we should understand it as the body’s reaction to any non-specific challenge. This mechanism has been shaped by evolution and natural selection. It enabled our ancestors to adapt their physiology and behaviour to ever-changing environments, from fluctuations in weather and food availability to altering day lengths. This adaptation ensured the optimal use of our energy resources in response to various challenges. 

To reference Robert Sapolsky… he mentions that the stress response is designed for ‘3 minutes of screaming terror across the Savannah.’ If you’re not experiencing such an intense moment, it’s likely that your stress response isn’t calibrated right. At its core, stress is a primal reaction meant for life-threatening situations where our options are to freeze, flee, or fight. These reactions, while crucial for survival, aren’t exactly what you’d hope for when dealing with early morning emails. In our digital age, it might lead to an inadvertent ‘reply all’ or perhaps a hastily written email. 

To delve into a fascinating study that I often recall when discussing stress: in 2003, researchers carried out a classic conditioning experiment with mice. They exposed male mice to a cherry blossom scent followed by a shock. Soon, just the scent alone would send these mice into a state of distress. Now, the intriguing bit: when these conditioned males bred with females that hadn’t been exposed to the scent or shock, their offspring still exhibited stress upon encountering the cherry blossom aroma, even without prior exposure. This suggests the potential of passing down fear responses genetically. While we could dive deep into the implications, such as the cultural transmission of trauma across generations, for our current discussion, the takeaway is how we perceive our ‘cherry blossoms’ and react. Interestingly, we often play dual roles, both as the distressed mice and as the experimenter inducing our own stress. It seems our advanced cognition allows us, perhaps uniquely among species, to misinterpret stress stimuli. It’s a complex topic, but an enthralling one to explore. 

Q: Does understanding stress help us achieve our goals? 

[Dr. Rebecca Heiss]: The brain’s adaptability is astounding. Consider the first time you drove a car. For most of us, it’s a vivid memory: hands positioned at 10 and 2, scanning for signs, pedestrians, and every little detail. Contrast that with today, where you might drive with one hand on the wheel, chatting on your cell phone, adjusting your podcast, all while managing the kids in the back seat. What this indicates is our remarkable ability to train our subconscious to adeptly navigate evolving scenarios without active thought. This fact fills me with optimism because it implies, we can tap into and influence these deeply ingrained behaviours and thought patterns. The brain is continuously rewiring; it’s different now than it was just 30 seconds ago. That is fascinating and offers great promise.

Q: How does stress link to our sense of self-worth? 

[Dr. Rebecca Heiss]: I often emphasize that there’s a correlation between our self-esteem and the stress we experience, largely because we’re inherently social beings. Our position or rank within society carries significant weight. This is evident in the way gossip is a universal phenomenon across cultures; we’re constantly discussing others and sharing insights about ourselves and our peers. However, one of the challenges posed by globalization and our digitally connected era is that our frame of comparison has expanded dramatically. We’re no longer just measuring ourselves against the 120 members of our local community, who often share similar values and experiences. Instead, with our devices, we’re exposed to global icons like Bill Gates, Oprah, or LeBron James, setting standards for our intelligence, beauty, and self-worth. This expanded comparison can be detrimental. As humans, we often compare upwards, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy. This perception raises our cortisol levels, making us feel inferior and diminishing our self-esteem. There’s an extensive body of research exploring how we perceive our value in this interconnected world, and the effects of these perceptions on our well-being. 

Q: How do we therefore build resilience to stress? 

[Dr. Rebecca Heiss]: First and foremost, it’s essential to cultivate gratitude for our current state. It’s all too easy to become caught in the hedonic treadmill, constantly comparing ourselves to others. And while I’m recognized as a stress physiologist, I want to clarify that I’m not immune to stress. Being knowledgeable doesn’t mean I’m exempt; I also grapple with it despite being well-acquainted with coping techniques. 

The subconscious mind is potent. With the barrage of information we process, it’s crucial to stay consciously engaged. To manage stress, I employ a ‘3, 2, 1’ approach: 

**Three minutes**: When I sense stress, I allot three minutes to fully immerse myself in it. This means permitting myself to worry, to be anxious, and to imagine all possible negative outcomes. Many individuals attempt to escape stress, but evasion often amplifies it. It’s akin to instructing someone not to think of pink elephants; the very command makes it impossible not to. So, I give in to the stress, allowing it to flood my system for those three minutes. 

**Two deep breaths**: Following that, I take two ‘physiological sighs.’ I inhale deeply through the nose, adding an extra sip of oxygen, and then exhale through the mouth. This process helps redirect focus to our conscious mind, slowing everything down and moving from a heightened stress state to a more balanced cognitive one. 

**One question**: Lastly, I pose a question to myself. It could relate to the stressor or be entirely unrelated, like pondering why ceilings are typically white. The intent here is to foster curiosity. Intriguingly, the brain doesn’t allow curiosity and fear to coexist. None of our ancestors, when faced with a charging tiger, paused to question its speed. So, when we engage our curiosity, we inherently push fear aside, building our resilience muscle.  

Ultimately, resilience is just like any muscle—it requires consistent practice and understanding to recognize and address stress effectively. 

Q: Do these techniques even work for severe stress? 

[Dr. Rebecca Heiss]: …awareness is essential in dealing with stress, which is an ever-present challenge. Let’s delve into the topic of mindset, which plays a pivotal role. Many aim to evade stress, but it should be embraced. When individuals express a desire for a stress-free life, I often remind them of two things: First, the only beings without stress are no longer living. Second, when you plot stress against performance, you observe an inverse U-shaped curve. At zero stress, performance is at its lowest. But as stress levels rise, so does performance, up to a certain point before there’s a drop-off. 

My focus is on extending and adjusting this drop-off. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think this decline is inevitable. Take Olympic athletes as an example. World records tend to be shattered at moments of peak pressure, where conventional wisdom would suggest performance should wane. 

This makes me believe many are harnessing an ‘adventure mindset’. When confronted with stress, our body releases a flurry of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and more. Interestingly, the same hormonal cascade occurs when we feel excitement. Essentially, whether we’re excited or stressed, our physiological response is similar. The key differentiator is our perception of these sensations. Reframing stress as our body’s way of gearing up to tackle challenges – such as recognizing the increased heart rate to deliver essential nutrients for sharper thinking – can be a potent tool in altering our stress experience. 

[Vikas: is this why quantifying our stress and mindset is so important?] 

[Dr. Rebecca Heiss]: Oh, if only I could invent a device to monitor cortisol levels every moment of the day! In the past, I had participants provide saliva samples to measure their cortisol levels, but it was a tedious and, honestly, somewhat unsavory method. However, the journey to self-awareness is pivotal. By understanding ourselves better, we can more effectively manage stress. Recognizing and naming our emotions makes them less intimidating, allowing us to tame them. Fear, in many ways, thrives on our uncertainties and vulnerabilities. By identifying and verbalizing what we fear, we strip it of its power, shifting our mindset from an emotional to a more logical space. 

With enhanced self-awareness, we discern between what’s within our control—our reactions and responses—and what’s not. For instance, while I might wish for everyone to like me, I can’t control their perceptions. Acknowledging this is liberating. Self-awareness, to me, is about discerning the elements of life we can control from those we should release. This recognition doesn’t hinder growth or improvement but provides a necessary clarity that aids in managing stress. 

Q: How do we balance stress resilience, with the need for a healthy relationship to risk? 

[Dr. Rebecca Heiss]: Let me illustrate with a personal story. I used to be an avid climber, mostly scaling trees, often 150 feet tall and situated perilously close to cliffs. This was all part of a research project. One day, I found myself dangling from such a height, swaying in the wind, and to my surprise, I felt no stress. That was the moment I realized it was time to stop. When you’ve conditioned your mind to suppress its natural alarm systems, that’s when accidents happen due to complacency. On the flip side, studies indicate that individuals with heightened stress are more inclined to make risky financial decisions. Their mindset veers towards ‘what do I have to lose?’, though they might not consciously articulate it. They act recklessly because they’re not truly present, mentally speaking. The challenge lies in striking a balance, recognizing when you’re on either extreme and adjusting accordingly. I wish there was a straightforward way to gauge it, but the key lies in self-awareness. 

Q: Do we therefore also need to be self-aware to defend against manipulation? 

[Dr. Rebecca Heiss]: There’s a lot to glean from understanding these mechanisms. While it can certainly be seen as a manipulative technique, the key lies in how we harness it. Our brains are instinctively drawn to the rewards, like the allure of a ripe berry. However, they are more alert to potential threats— the rustling behind you or the lurking danger. It’s how we’re wired: to prioritize threats over rewards, because threats can be fatal.  

When I collaborate with companies, I often advise them to craft a shared, abstract ‘enemy.’ Historically, we formed tribes with people who resembled us in appearance, action, and thought. Today, any deviation from what we’re familiar with, even as trivial as a differing political opinion, can elicit a stress response, signifying ‘you’re not one of us.’ So, to bridge these divides, why not introduce a uniting factor? Not just the pleasant ones, but an external ‘enemy’ that rallies everyone together.  

Take baseball as an example. As an avid Boston Red Sox supporter, I’ve seen firsthand how shared allegiance can blur superficial divides. When facing a rival team, fans momentarily set aside their differences to unite against the common opponent. In the corporate realm, this ‘enemy’ could be combating mediocrity, pushing against a lack of diversity, or eliminating inefficiencies. It’s about harnessing our innate urge to oppose perceived negatives and channelling it for collective betterment. 

Q: How can leaders apply these techniques to help manage their team’s stress? 

[Dr. Rebecca Heiss]: It’s essential to note that everyone’s stress response varies. What may overwhelm one person might merely be the beginning for another. Thus, fostering self-awareness, not only within the team as a whole but also for each individual, is crucial. The best approach? Lead by example. I often emphasize the importance of authenticity, and frankly, being genuine is one of the most challenging tasks. While we frequently focus on our setbacks, failures, and potential embarrassments, we should also consider the opportunity costs. What happens if we hold back? If we’re not fully committed? The costs of inaction can be significant.  

Leaders should encourage their teams to think rationally about stressors. Ask questions: Is the stressor life-threatening? If not, what are its manageable aspects, and what are the repercussions if we avoid confronting it? Documenting these considerations can transition our reactions from being emotional to logical, enabling us to identify actionable steps. 


Lastly, I advocate for the development of micro habits. There’s extensive discussion about ‘atomic habits’ in our world, and they align with our biological responses. When we achieve small milestones, we receive dopamine boosts, which serve as motivation. This sense of progression, even if incremental, can significantly lower our stress levels and promote consistent growth. 

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Dr. Rebecca Heiss]: The notion of legacy has often weighed on me, especially since having children biologically passes on a legacy. For a long while, I felt an overwhelming need to achieve grand things, to etch my name in history, to cement a tangible legacy. And then, there are those, like yourself, with such outstanding accomplishments.  

Recently, during a run with a dear friend—a brilliant Harvard Medical graduate, marathoner, CEO, supermom, and an incredibly kind soul—she shared a profound thought. She said, ‘The universe isn’t concerned about whether I reach my full potential.’ It resonated deeply with me. We often obsess over recognized legacies, overlooking the silent, powerful ones that truly shape us. Many who’ve profoundly impacted my life, such as elementary school teachers or friends, will never make headlines. Yet, their influence is profound. 

To me, my desired legacy lies in the daily touchpoints where I inspire others to embrace kindness, presence, and joy. I hope to weave a fabric in the universe—one of love and compassion—giving everyone the warmth and confidence they need. 

On another note, I realized I missed mentioning something crucial during our talk. Ironically, our most fulfilling moments often emerge during our most stressful phases. There’s a peculiar fulfilment derived from anxiety and worry. Perhaps that’s the sole argument favouring parenthood, which would be my stress antidote. Otherwise, the monotony would be unbearable for me. 


Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.