The unprecedented challenges of the pandemic mean life is asking a lot of us these days. Many people are experiencing a perfect storm of stressors. Yet these challenging times present as good an opportunity as any to gain a solid understanding of our stress levels and what actually works for managing them.
Stress has the ability to affect every system in our body, and this continued strain of persistent acute or chronic stress can lead to serious health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and mental disorders. But how much stress is too much? And is there such a thing as not enough? When it comes to our productivity and performance, it turns out that there is a critical relationship between pressure and performance.
If you find yourself frequently distracted and disorganized at work, you may be either chronically stressed or understimulated. To find a nice medium, try some of these strategies to moderate your stress and get back to performing at your peak.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law
Often graphically illustrated as an inverted bell-shaped curve, “The Yerkes-Dodson Law” or Inverted “U” of performance, depicts that when people experience the right amount of mental and physiological arousal (or stress) for the task at hand, they can perform at their peak. But too much or too little pressure, and performance suffers.
This curve reflects the remarkably fussy nature of our prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is crucial to higher-order thinking and executive functioning. To perform optimally, our PFC needs a nearly perfect balance of neurochemicals—not too much, not too little, but just right—leading Amy Arnsten, professor of neurobiology and psychology at Yale University, to refer to the PFC as “the Goldilocks of the brain.”
When you’re tired, bored, or unmotivated, small amounts of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine are released. In contrast, extreme stress results in the release of high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine. In the case of either too little or too much of these neurochemicals, the effect on our PFC is the same: We are more distracted, disorganized, forgetful, and disinhibited.
In other words, either too much or too little stress takes us to the same ineffective place. The anxiety you may feel before a high-stakes presentation is one example of how the Yerkes-Dodson Law works. An optimal level of stress helps you create the necessary energy to prepare and deliver a dynamic presentation, but too much, and it impairs your ability to concentrate and remember what you want to say. To be at our best, we need just the right amount.
The right amount for peak performance differs both from person to person and over time for each individual. The optimal level also varies according to the task. With relatively simple tasks, you are generally capable of dealing with a broader range of arousal levels. Pressure can even be helpful for tasks requiring a narrow focus or stamina. However, for complex, unfamiliar tasks or ones requiring creative insight, lower arousal levels facilitate concentration and higher performance.
Given that we’re not able to stay at the top of the “U” at all times, the most obvious application of the Yerkes-Dodson Law is to organize your work to match your circadian rhythm and the natural peaks and valleys of your energy.
Identify your typical energy levels pattern and attempt to do your most important and creative work when you’re at your peak. It’s always tempting to knock out simpler tasks, such as handling email or returning calls, instead of digging into work that requires more effort, but save these less cognitively taxing tasks for times when your energy is low. Even if you cannot entirely control your schedule, work the margins to tailor your tasks to your energy.
How to manage too much stress
With high stress levels relating to the pandemic and the uncertainty around the U.S.’s future, many of us need targeted techniques to reduce our stress.
Fortunately, there are a multitude of scientifically proven methods to choose from. Most of us recognize that ample sleep, healthy eating, and exercise are essential to our mental well-being. The good news is that nearly any type of exercise, from yoga to aerobic, can effectively relieve stress. And for additional stress-relieving and mood-boosting benefits, take your workout outdoors.
Other proven stress-reduction techniques include meditation and practicing simple relaxation response techniques, such as deep abdominal breathing, visualizing a favorite relaxing place, or repeating a soothing word. Connecting with loved ones or sorting through emotions through journaling also helps us return to a place of calm.
Finally, a heightened sense of control has powerful stress-buffering effects. Differentiate between what you can and cannot control and focus your efforts on the aspects where you can make choices. Creating a simple two-column list is remarkably effective for parsing out the controllable from the uncontrollable so you can expend your finite energy where it will make a difference.
Experiment among these various methods to find the ones that are most effective and enjoyable for you. By practicing any of these techniques over time, you will reduce your baseline of stress and create muscle memory, so that you will be able to calm yourself more quickly when stress strikes and your heart starts racing.
What does too little stress look like?
On the flip side, there are times when we need more stimulation to be at our best. This can easily happen if your job is no longer challenging or your current role doesn’t interest you. We all occasionally get bored at work but if it’s chronic and impacting your performance, consider how to increase the challenge in your current role.
The thought of inviting stress into your life may create discomfort, especially given today’s climate of uncertainty. But it’s really about taking small action steps and looking for opportunities, such as a new project or responsibility, that are both of intrinsic interest and will stretch you to grow. If these options don’t exist, it may be time to consider a new role.
The key for us all is to increase our awareness of where we sit on the inverted “U” curve—at the present moment and over the course of time—and where we ideally need to be. Understanding this dynamic will help you manage your work and your stress levels in a way that’s both practical and sophisticated.
This may not be a linear or rapid process, but it’s vital to your well-being. And over time your increased self-awareness and balanced stress levels will help propel you to optimal productivity and performance.
Dina Smith is the owner of Cognitas, a leadership development firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.