Stress is Needed for Optimal Performance

by | Jan 28, 2022

Being a bit nervous giving a speech is a good thing

We tend to think of stress as bad. And it can be, as too much stress is associated with various health problems. But stress has an upside: up to a certain point it is associated with higher performance.

The figure below is a representation of a concept known at the Yerkes-Dodson Law which says that performance increases with stress (called arousal) up to a point but then too much of it harms performance.


The Yerkes-Dodson Law means that we tend to perform better when we’re a bit nervous or anxious but our performance suffers if we’re freaking out. Think about studying for a final exam and then taking the test. Being a bit anxious can drive focus and motivation, but if you’re flipping out you’re probably going to bomb. A primary reason I like to speak in public is the nervousness and stress I feel preparing and right before walking on stage — I feel totally alive — like I’m buzzing. However, at times I’ve tipped into being too nervous and my presentation hasn’t gone well and I didn’t have fun. So, there’s a sweet spot.

The key points to take from the Yerkes-Dodson Law are:

  • Not all stress or anxiety is bad — some is necessary for optimal performance. Don’t let feeling stressed cause you concern leading up performing. If you’re about to give a presentation, lead a meeting with a client, make a sales pitch, perform at a music recital, play a tennis match, go on a first date, etc., and you feel nervous that’s not a bad thing. Acknowledge your feelings of anxiety and nervousness and tell yourself that those emotions are necessary for you to rock whatever you’re about to do.
  • But, if you are feeling high levels of stress, your performance is likely to suffer. We all know what it feels like to be on the edge of panic — that’s too much arousal. When that happens take steps to reduce your anxiety. A great way to do this is to practice the Relaxing Breath.

1 Comment

  1. I’ve found that to be true. It helped me to stay focused in order to meet overlapping deadlines at work. Too much, though, and my health suffered. It is extremely difficult to balance.


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