Keep Calm and Carry On
Escape rooms are meant to be fun and don’t get me wrong, they absolutely are! But amidst the fun, stress also comes with the territory. The pressure from a limited time to escape, to perform well for your group, and to tackle completely novel challenges can stress you out and impair your performance if you let it get the best of you. Very real changes in your body chemistry occur with stress, but don’t fret, there are ways to adapt and counter them! Read on to become a stress-abolishing hero.
Now Panic and Freak Out!
A stressful situation, whether within an escape room or not, can trigger a flow of physiological changes everyone has experienced. Your heart pounds faster, your breathing quickens, your muscles tense and the sweat starts to accumulate. The combination of these reactions to stress is known as the “fight-or-flight” response. It all starts in the brain, when the amygdala processes emotions and sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. You can think of the hypothalamus as the control center of your brain, and it communicates with the rest of the body. A burst of energy is supplied into the body by epinephrine. When that subsides, the HPA axis is activated and keeps the body on high alert by releasing cortisol. It’s like your own personal espresso café up there!
The Good Stress
Now, a common misperception people have is that all stress is bad. That a life without stress would be optimal. But in reality, stress is a very adaptive reaction to challenge. It helps us survive and act quickly in life-threatening situations. It heightens our energy and awareness to focus on the task at hand, with less need to attend to lower-level needs like eating or sleeping. Evolutionarily, it makes sense that species with vivid stress responses survived, because they would be quick to respond when a predator lurks nearby.
The Bad Stress
The escape room, however, is not a jungle (ok, maybe you picked a jungle-themed escape room, but that’s not a real lion in the corner). Your life isn’t being threatened and an overload of stress hormones isn’t necessary; it can actually impede your success in the escape! Stress hormones have been shown to impact higher order executive functions, like decision-making and solving logic puzzles. One study found that people with high blood levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone”, perform worse on abstract reasoning and attention than those with average levels of cortisol. Whomp whomp.
There is always hope
Let’s imagine you’re in the thick of the escape, and you notice all those telltale physiological signs of stress. And the less time is left on the clock, the faster you might find your heart pounding. In the final minutes, it might be best to not look at the clock and take your focus away from the countdown timer. Research also suggests you can elicit a relaxation response with very simple tasks. These include deep abdominal breathing and visualizing a peaceful scene in nature. Additionally, you can always ask for help from a teammate. We’re a naturally social species, and calling upon our friends and co-workers for help not only helps us fight stress, but deepens our relationships.
There you have it: The good, the bad, and the hopeful things about stress. Book an escape room for a fun and safe way to practice stress management, and put what you’ve learned to good use!