Good and Bad Stress & Memory
When we endure excessive stress both as a one-off or for longer, even when this stress is manufactured, it plays havoc with our memory. Research by Charles Morgan, professor of Psychiatry at Yale University and specialist of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) found that 80% of elite soldiers at a SERE military school (SERE= Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, presented with near total (short term) amnesia after being subjected to a manufactured, high stress, training situation of being a POW, prisoner of war.
Day-to-day, we are unlikely to suffer from such an extreme form of stress, but rather we suffer from continuous low-level stresses because of – to name a few – having too much on our plates, some form of social exclusion, ghosting, a difficult school environment, being at the bottom of the class or from having toxic friends. These types of stresses do considerably affect working memory and cognitive flexibility. Not unlike the (temporary) memory loss the elite soldiers experience. For teenagers entering their exam years, it is vital to eliminate negative sources of non-exam related stresses as much as possible as they really will impact short term – and inherently long-term – memory and information retention and, finally, exam performance.
But the Yerkes-Dodson theory claimed there exists also a ‘good’ level of stress. This ‘right’ amount of performance stress can help us focus. Stress related to a specific task/exam ahead, so NOT social-, personal or relationship stress, can help us to get the job done as it releases just about the right amount of adrenalin and fear of failure to get prepared as best as we can with a much focus we need.
Making Stress Work For Us
So how can we turn our stress into something helpful as opposed to something negative? A straightforward way to do this is to plan our time. If we plan realistically, and stick to it, workloads become more manageable and therefore performance improves
Harvard Business Review also advises to reframe our stress; to re-evaluate the feeling of it, to harness it and make it into our natural source of energy, allowing us to perform better than we would if we weren’t stressed at all (the ‘no-arousal’ equals ‘low task performance’ Yerkes-Dodson theory). By thinking about stress in a positive light, we limit our urge to panic.
Lastly, an easy stress buster when we are in a high performance environment – such as exam periods -, is exercise, preferably outdoor exercise because it really helps to clear the mind, to relax the body and to fire up some new brain cells in the process.
So were Yerkes-Dodson right, that some form of stress can aid performance? It appears so, at least if it is related to a specific performance or task and is ‘managed’ well enough, stress can mean success.