Stress and Anxiety Can Lead to Improved Performance

Many people claim that they work best under pressure. There’s some truth to that. Stress is a natural response in highly competitive environments. Before an exam, important meeting, or contest, your heart rate rises and so does your blood pressure. You become more absorbed, alert, and efficient.

However, this favorable relationship applies only up to a certain level of stress. Past this level, stress impairs your performance—and eventually your heart.

In 1908, Harvard psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson first described the beneficial and harmful effects of stress (“psychological arousal”) on performance in a graph the shape of an upside-down U. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, the ascendant curve reflects the energizing effect of arousal. The descendant curve reflects the negative effects of stress on thinking and learning, or performance in general.

Too Much Anxiety and Stress Impairs Performance, but so Does Too Little: The Yerkes-Dodson Law

Many physiological studies have demonstrated that stress enhances your performance by causing your brain to use more of its capabilities, improve memory and intelligence, and increase productivity. Without stress, athletes, performers, executives, and students are likely to underachieve.

There is an optimum level of arousal for every kind of task. So how do you find the right balance? How do you get yourself into the performance zone where stress is most helpful? How much stress is good? The answers depend on individual disposition, the types of stressors, the nature of the task itself, and perceptions of what is stressful to you.

When Stress is Good: The Yerkes-Dodson Law

Idea for Impact: Stress at Work May Be Inevitable but it Doesn’t Have to Be Detrimental

Stress can be a motivator. But don’t seek out stress—less of it is better. Make the stress you do have work for you. Becoming conscious of stress as a potential positive can reduce the harm it causes.

  • Develop an awareness of when you hit the limits beyond which working longer or harder is counter-productive (sportsmen tend to choke under intense pressure.) When you feel overwhelmed, look for ways to reduce or eliminate the stressors so you can become more productive again. Ask for help.
  • Performance deteriorates when your stress level is either too high or too low for a given task. Seek the optimal level of anxiety that can impel you forward without causing you to fight back or give up.

Idea for Impact: The Right Level of Anxiety Can Be a Positive Force for Driving Employees Forward

Anxiety and optimal performance is an individual affair. The Yerkes-Dodson Curve shifts as the performers become established and experienced with the undertaking.

Astute managers repeatedly assess and re-assess where their team members land on the Yerkes-Dodson Curve. Managers can identify over-stressed or under-motivated circumstances with employees and intervene quickly to tailor the level of stress.

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