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Poker Shrink Vol. 64: Eustress

Poker Shrink

One of my favorite concepts in all of psychology is eustress. When we think of stress, we usually are considering something that is a negative for the human being. But in fact, stress is a normal part of everyday life and comes in both good and bad forms. The “bad” type of stress is distress. When we are in distress we potentially have a whole series of negative consequences. Distress or too much stress, or even stress without relief over a long period of time, can negatively affect every aspect of your life.

Distress can lead to numerous serious illnesses such as high blood pressure and a variety of cardiac conditions. High amounts of stress will cause sleep problems, which lead to excess tiredness and loss of focus. A reduced immune system can also result directly from high levels of stress.

In the modern world when you go to see a medical professional, he could quite literally print at the bottom of your intake chart: reduce stress! Diet, exercise, yoga – there are dozens of ways to address distress in one’s life. But we are talking about poker, not life, and we are talking about eustress, not distress.

Eustress is the “good” type of stress. Yes, read that slowly – the good type of stress. We need motivation to perform at our best. Eustress is clinically the optimal amount of stress that will promote health, growth, and top-level performance.

Think about this for a moment. You are given a big assignment at work, one that is critical for the company and probably very important in your getting that next promotion and raise. Now what does it feel like when the assignment comes with the following instructions:

1) “The deadline has been moved up, we need this completed by Tuesday!”
2) “This is critical to the next quarter’s budget, we need this in three weeks.”
3) “Get this to me when you can.”

All of these are going to induce some level of stress; you just got a big assignment. But as far as promoting a level of eustress you might draw on to be productive, I think you can see that instruction #2 is optimal.

So you are about to begin a big poker tournament. How do you feel? Do you have butterflies in your stomach? This is a four-day, big buy-in event. So which of these seems optimal for a player to make a run at the championship?

A) My game has been way off; I need to focus on winning this one.
B) These things are never decided on Day One, I can always golf tomorrow.
C) I have been working on my game. I am ready to focus and play well.

Can you really win a four-day event on Day One? Is casual the way you want to approach your poker game? Or is some nervousness appropriate and healthy?

Great actors will tell you that they are always nervous before they go on stage. No matter how many times they have performed the same part, they always get keyed up. Stage fright is the result of distress, but a truly great performance starts with eustress.

Be prepared to play. Challenge yourself to play your best game. Focus from the first hand and stay alert to the challenge each and every hand. Someone is trying to take your chips every time you enter a pot. If you are not prepared to battle for those chips, they are. Eustress is good stress; it keeps us going and gives us an edge. You can learn to cultivate eustress by mentally preparing before you sit down at the poker table.

One more little thing to know about eustress. When you are working or playing in a state of good stress, it is less likely that something negative, such as a bad beat, will flip you into distress. If you are neutral or on cruise control, distress is much easier to fall into. Eustress acts as a preventative for tilt.

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