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Why Stress Isn't Always a Bad Thing and How to Use it to Enhance Your Performance

Finding the balance.

Jessy Wrigley

Jessy Wrigley

Monday, 19th March 2018

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Ever felt a flurry of nerves when you’ve been handed a tight deadline but ended up ace-ing it? Then found yourself averaging out on a project you felt pretty breezy about?

Pressure isn’t always such a bad thing.

In psychology, this phenomenon is referred to as The Yerkes-Dodson Law, and it’s no new discovery. The first research was carried out over a century ago by Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, two psychologists looking to explore the relationship between performance and physical or mental ‘arousal’ (AKA stress). The experiment involved motivating rats to navigate their way around a maze. When the rats took the wrong route, they were given small electric shocks.

They found that by increasing the voltage they were able to enhance the rats learning time, enabling them to make faster progress through the maze.

But the key point here is that this worked only up until a certain point. Once the electric shocks increased past a certain intensity, the rats forgot everything they’d learnt, and instead started making silly mistakes, running around frantically looking for an escape.

Put simply, a certain level of arousal (or stress) can actually provide us with a much-needed boost, and spur on performance. But there’s an important catch... This ‘optimal level’ is extremely delicate. Once we get pushed too hard, our stress levels escalate and our performance starts to decline again.

Stress then, is only motivating up until its intensity starts to overwhelm the task at hand. When things become overwhelming, we’ll often end up sacrificing common sense in the hope of finding the fastest way out.

The psychological term for this is called satisficing. Satisficing is a cognitive heuristic - or let’s say, brain algorithm - which allows us to make fast decisions. It’s the mental shortcut of doing just enough to get our immediate needs met. In the case of stress, this happens when the intensity becomes so overbearing that we’ll do the fastest thing in our power to alleviate it. Naturally, by skipping the rational thought process, we’ll often end up making decisions that don’t serve us in the long run.

Take, for example, your boss telling you that you’ll lose your job if you don’t meet a particular deadline. Understandably, most of us would find ourselves doing anything in our power to meet the deadline and save our job. On the other hand, that decision might cause us to turn a blind eye to other equally important tasks, resulting in more damage later down the line.

So what’s perfect balance?

What we’re really looking for is our optimal level, which lies somewhere between no motivation and high stress. Of course, trying to find a happy balance between two extremes is no mean feat. And to make matters worse, it’s no secret we all have different overload points. What might be a ‘push in the right direction’ for one person might be completely overwhelming to someone who’s naturally more sensitive to stress. Getting to know our own boundaries is the first step.

If we play our cards right, that’s when we’re able to access the much-hyped state of ‘flow’. We experience flow when we’re in such a deep level of focus and engagement that everything else starts to melt away into the background. Flow is where we’re able to give our best, inevitably leaving us with deeper satisfaction of our achievements in the long run.

Taking the necessary steps to feel your way towards balance.

Speak to your boss - whilst it might be tempting to ride out the quiet moments, if you find yourself constantly under challenged you’ll find it a struggle to reach your potential. At the same time, if you’re working day and night and pumped up with adrenaline, you’ll be hard-pressed to give your best. A good boss will want to know where you stand, and work with you to find that balancing point where you’re able to excel.

Introvert vs. extrovert - do you know where you stand on the introvert/extrovert scale? Some psychologists believe that people who are naturally extroverted are likely to do better in high-pressured environments. In constrast, introverts tend to excel in a more relaxed environment. Getting to know your own comfort zone can help you make sure you’ve chosen a working environment that suits you.

Check you’re in the right job - we’re all naturally better at some things over others. And most us will find more enjoyment doing the things we have a natural flare for. If organising things doesn’t come naturally to you but you spend all day managing people’s diaries, the stress of busier days is more likely to overwhelm you instead of spurring you into action.

Be kind to yourself - if you find yourself drowning in self-criticism, all that noise is going to be sending your focus haywire. People who are self-confident will generally tackle pressures in a more constructive way, making it easier to harness the state of flow. Take a moment to check in with your own personal pep talks. Most of us talk to ourselves in a way we’d never dream of doing with family and friends. If you’re plagued by self-doubt, try introducing some positive affirmations when stress or anxiety takes hold. One example might be, “I’m well prepared for this and I’m giving my best. I’m going to ace this”. It might feel weird at first, but positive thinking can do wonders.

Take up meditation - flow is essentially a state of moving meditation, of complete immersement in an action or activity. By practising meditation, we can train our brains to generate flow experiences more directly, allowing us to tap into this state instinctively throughout everyday life. The good news is, you don’t have to become a Buddhist monk to harness of the benefits of meditation. Just 10 minutes of zen time a day has been shown to lower anxiety and increase focus.

If you're struggling with stress at work or home, finding the right therapist can help you get back on track. Try our questionnaire to start connecting with therapists in your area.