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.