The Effect Of Stress On Performance. Can Stress Mean Success?

According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, there’s an empirical relationship between stress and performance. This ‘law’ dictates that performance increases with stress, but only up to a certain point. There is, it claims, a form of ‘good’ stress. So, is it possible to convert stress into success?

The Yerkes-Dodson theory shows that there is an ‘optimal level’ of stress at which our brains perform their best. On either side of this optimal – middle – point, however, stress has a negative impact: no stress equals no arousal and hence means low task performance and too much stress results in low task performance too, as the brain goes into ‘fight or flight’ mode, in which it prioritises certain areas of the brain over others and will not be operating on all cylinders

How The Brain Responds To Stress

When we experience stress, the amygdala, a small area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing and harbours our survival instincts, takes over, leaving other parts of the brain that help to store memories and perform higher-level tasks with less energy and ability to get their own jobs done. In effect, when stressed, it is difficult to absorb and retain new information as stress impairs short term memory. Dr.Kerry Ressler, professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School says about the effect of stress on short term memory that: “the basic idea is that the brain is redirecting its resources because it's in survival mode, not memory mode. Therefore, we might be more forgetful when we are under stress or may even experience memory lapses during and after traumatic events”.

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.

Recommended links: