When most of us think about stress, the association is that it’s bad and therefore needs to be eliminated. But, have you ever noticed that you perform better when you are a tad nervous? The stress response is a hard-wired biological mechanism designed to get you into action.
It turns out that you need a certain amount of stress to perform whether that performance involves writing an email, running a race, sitting an exam or navigating through traffic. In psychology, this link between arousal (stress) and performance is known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law.
“The ultimate goal of those studying stress is not to ‘cure’ us of it, but to optimize it” – Robert Sapolsky, Stanford University neurobiologist (2015)
The relationship between stress and performance was described more than a century ago by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). They discovered that mild electrical shocks (stressors) could motivate rats to complete a maze, but that when the intensity of the shocks was increased, the rats would move about randomly trying to escape. What this means is that increased arousal can improve performance, but only up to a certain point. When arousal becomes excessive, performance diminishes.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law (Figure 1) resembles an inverted U (Pietrangelo, 2020; Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). When stress is low, we feel tired, bored and unmotivated. Performance is, not surprisingly, weak. As stress increases, performance improves and peaks as inactivity gives way to energy, alertness and motivation. As arousal increases further, performance becomes impaired as we move into fatigue, overload and anxiety.
Figure 1. The Yerkes-Dodson Law describes the relationship between arousal (stress) and performance.
Intensity and duration
“…the response to stress depends on the nature, intensity and duration of a stressor” (Sapolsky, 2015)
We all understand that severe stress is detrimental. But what the Yerkes-Dodson law tells us is that intensity matters: mild-to-moderate stress is beneficial. At the right level, stress is a highly effective form of mobilizing us into action. However, when excessive, it’s counterproductive.
The right amount of arousal for peak performance varies from person to person and changes over time for each individual (Smith, 2020). Recent research has also found that the optimal arousal level depends on the complexity and difficulty of the task to be performed (Gould & Krane, 1992). More complex tasks require lower levels of arousal to maintain optimal performance (Chaby et al., 2015).
What this all means is that performance optimization requires personal experimentation. The goal is the ‘Goldilocks’ sweet spot – not too little stress, not too much.
In addition to the intensity of the stressor being important, duration also plays a role. Transient (short-term, acute) stress is helpful whereas ongoing (long-term, chronic) stress is problematic. Neuroendocrinology pioneer Bruce McEwen coined the term allostatic load to describe the problems that are caused when stress systems designed to help us survive become overworked. His research led to the understanding that the effects of stress hormones are biphasic (have two phases); they are protective in the short-term but potentially damaging in the long-term (McEwen, 2013).
Tool #1: Change your stress mindset
Because most of us believe stress is bad for us, researchers have identified a new phenomenon of “meta stress” where people report feeling stressed about feeling stressed (Brady et al., 2018)!
If you believe stress is universally bad, it’s time to change your mindset. Yes, high intensity stress and chronic stress need to be avoided, but short-term, mild-to-moderate intensity stress is good for you. View it as a way to enhance performance outcomes (Crum et al., 2020).
Performance excitement instead of performance anxiety
The stress response is usually discussed in the context of feeling afraid and responding to danger. But in what other circumstances do we experience sweaty palms, a racing heart and a dry mouth? When we are excited.
It turns out that feeling scared and being excited both trigger the stress response. They are both states of high arousal in which the stress hormones epinephrine and cortisol surge; the only difference is that we associate excitement with positive emotions (Khazan, 2016).
Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks has studied how people perform in anxiety-provoking situations such as singing in public or giving a speech. What she discovered was that most people try to calm themselves down, an approach she says is entirely wrong (Brooks, 2014). Being calm in the body represents a state of low arousal which we know is not helpful for performance.
Brooks found that it is easier for our brains to make the leap from negative high-arousal (feeling scared, nervous or anxious) to positive high-arousal (feeling excited), than to go from negative high-arousal to positive low-arousal (calm) states (Khazan, 2016). This brings us to our next tool.
Tool #2: Anxiety reappraisal
The technique Brooks used in her research was a cognitive strategy called anxiety reappraisal; she directed people in her studies to say either “I feel nervous” or “I feel excited” prior to their performance. Those in the excitement group objectively did a better job.
This technique didn’t lower feelings of nervousness or reduce heart rate because the stress response was still active, but the reframing meant that the stress enhanced performance rather than diminished it. Brooks recommends we ditch the slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” and replace it with “Get Amped and Don’t Screw Up”.
Cognitive reappraisal has been widely studied as an approach to regulate stress. If telling yourself that you’re excited doesn’t appeal, another version of this method is to say “I have what it takes to manage this (fill-in-the-blank)” (Crum et al., 2020).
- The relationship between stress and performance is called the Yerkes-Dodson Law.
- Stress is not universally bad. Short-term, mild-to-moderate intensity stress enhances performance.
- The goal of stress management should be optimization, not elimination.
- Cognitive reappraisal can be used to reframe stress as excitement. Getting amped up, not remaining calm, is what helps us not screw up, i.e. perform.
- Brady, S., Hard, B., & Gross, J. (2018). Reappraising test anxiety increases academic performance of first-year college students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110, 395–406. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000219
- Brooks, A. (2014). Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1144 –1158. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035325
- Chaby, L. E., Sheriff, M. J., Hirrlinger, A. M., & Braithwaite, V. A. (2015). Can we understand how developmental stress enhances performance under future threat with the Yerkes-Dodson law? Commun Integr Biol, 8(3), e1029689. https://doi.org/10.1080/19420889.2015.1029689
- Crum, A. J., Jamieson, J. P., & Akinola, M. (2020). Optimizing stress: An integrated intervention for regulating stress responses. Emotion, 20(1), 120–125. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000670
- Gould, D., & Krane, V. (1992). The arousal–athletic performance relationship: Current status and future directions. In Advances in sport psychology. (pp. 119-142). Human Kinetics Publishers.
- Khazan, O. (2016). Can Three Words Turn Anxiety Into Success? The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/03/can-three-words-turn-anxiety-into-success/474909/
- McEwen, B. (2013). Bruce S. McEwen. Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved from https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/25at25/bruce-s-mcewen.html
- Pietrangelo, A. (2020). What the Yerkes-Dodson Law Says About Stress and Performance. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/yerkes-dodson-law#stress-performance-bell-curve
- Sapolsky, R. (2015). Stress and the brain: individual variability and the inverted-U. Nature Neuroscience, 18, 1344–1346. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.4109
- Smith, D. (2020). Bored or overloaded? This is the amount of stress you need to get things done. Fast Company. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/90553980/bored-or-overloaded-this-is-the-amount-of-stress-you-need-to-get-things-done
- Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation. Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18(5), 459–482. https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.920180503