You are probably already aware that experiencing high levels of stress can have many adverse effects on your physical and emotional health, your ability to focus or concentrate and on your productivity. But did you know that some level of stress or nervousness can actually improve your performance?

There is a psychological relationship between performance and stress. When expressed on a graph, this relationship forms an inverted ‘U’-shaped curve. This is called the Yerkes-Dodson curve, named after the psychologists R.M. Yerkes and J.D. Dodson. 

These scientists designed an experiment where rats were given a mild electric shock as they navigated a maze. As long as they were mild, the shocks motivated the rats to complete the maze. However, if the electrical shocks became too strong, the rats would try to escape the maze and run without a pattern. This experiment showed that low levels of stress could help improve productivity and outcome — but when the stress levels increased beyond a certain point, productivity took a hit.

Let’s consider an example to understand this better. When you try to complete a project at work, it’s important to have the “right” level of stress to be motivated to do the task and to put in effort to do it well. If you don’t feel stressed at all, you might find yourself getting distracted or even sleepy while you work on the project. On the other hand, if you feel too stressed, that could be just as problematic — in this case, it might get difficult for you to concentrate and you might end up in a state of distress and frustration.

The optimal level of stress

So the obvious question is — how do we identify what the optimal level of stress is? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer. The optimal level of stress required to maximise performance depends on several factors, like the complexity of the task, along with how familiar a task is and how proficient or skilled the performer is.

Studies show that simple tasks are not too affected by levels of arousal or stress. Think about a task you do each day that doesn’t require too much effort from your end — such as bathing, brushing your teeth, or eating. Your ability to complete these tasks will be relatively unaffected by how stressed you feel. You should be able to perform these tasks even if you feel high levels of stress.

On the other hand, complex tasks are more affected by, and sensitive to, stress levels. If a task is already difficult, then high or even moderate levels of stress can make the process more tedious and can interfere with performance. Thus, for complex tasks, it’s important to keep stress levels low — as this can lead to optimal performance on the task.

Moreover, studies show that typically, in case of tasks that require us to think a lot, we can perform optimally with lower levels of stress. In contrast, tasks that call for physical strength and stamina need higher levels of stress for optimal or good performance.

Your performance will also be affected by your experience and familiarity with the task. The more comfortable you are with a certain task, the easier it will be for you to do that task without feeling too stressed. On the other hand, when a task is new or unfamiliar, stress levels can rise. In such cases, it’s important to ensure that your stress levels aren’t too high in order to get started and to complete the task at a certain level of quality.

How to stay calm in a high-stress situation

When you’re working on a task and find that your stress levels are rising to an unmanageable extent, here are a few things you can do to cope.

Step away from the situation
Be patient and avoid making emotional decisions. When you find yourself feeling out of control, pause and stop whatever you are doing. Take a time out — breathe in and out for a few minutes, talk to someone, or go for a walk. When you feel slightly calmer, you can go back to the situation in order to address it.

Stay positive
Try to find the positive aspects of the situation and consider it as an opportunity to learn something. If you find yourself thinking negatively, try to evaluate your thoughts and check if they are helpful to you at this time. You could also try to think of what you would say to a friend if they were in distress — and then use that to talk to yourself more kindly in this moment of difficulty.

Take care of your body
When you are in a high-stress situation, it can take a toll on your body, especially if the situation lasts for a long time. On the other hand, having good physical health can actually make you more immune to the negative effects of stress. Eat healthy, drink plenty of water, and get eight hours of sleep each day. Make time for regular exercise and as far as possible, limit your consumption of substances like alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine — as they can exacerbate symptoms of stress.

Reach out to others
Sometimes you may benefit from speaking to others. Talking can help you vent your feelings which can then leave you feeling calmer. Call up your friends or mentor and ask them for advice. They might give you a different perspective on the situation that could be helpful to you. You may also make a social call just to distract yourself from a stressful situation.

Develop a coping ritual
Due to the healthcare crisis, you may be experiencing high levels of stress for a prolonged period of time. Finding something that will help you cope and making it a ritual in your life can help you stay calm. This can include taking a walk, journaling, having a cup of tea in the morning, or taking a hot shower before bed.

The next time you are faced with a stressful or challenging situation, remember that feeling a little bit of stress is normal and can motivate you to resolve the problem. Having said that, if you are struggling to manage your stress levels, don’t hesitate to reach out for support.


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