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Stress: How Understanding Your Natural Response Can Help to Improve Performance and Reduce Suffering

Updated: May 26


As modern day individuals, we feel pressured to multitask, skip lunch, and glorify the image of the overworked human. Commiserating with friends and coworkers about the unreasonable tasks or hours often gives way to statements like "but it's fine...I'm fine...we're all fine!" (Can't we all feel the helplessness depicted there?) The overachieving, frustrated, sleep deprived, people-pleasing, chronically stressed individual has become something of a mainstream cultural phenomenon.


Stress is a strange sort of word. It isn’t really a feeling. In fact it’s more of a physical response to a situation that we a) perceive as difficult and b) as requiring more from us than we are perhaps used to giving. For instance, if, one day you find out that, in addition to your typical routine, a friend tricks you into joining him in a marathon, you might perceive that your normal allocation of resources would not be sufficient to tackle all of your tasks. Because you’ve made that appraisal, a physiological process begins. Those changes include heightened alertness, quickened breath, increased concentration, decreased sleep, and increased productivity. This is the stress response in its beginning stages.


Actually, stress in its beginning stage is an advantageous effect and results in better performance. However, to use a coffee metaphor here, we are talking about the “light roast” version of stress. A “jolt” initially motivates us and narrows our focus toward the task at hand. But many wonder, “What would happen if I were to increase my caffeine intake? Would I not then become more productive?” Ah, enter the shot of espresso. In short: yes; however, there is an optimal level of stress, at which performance is ideal but would begin to suffer if you were to add even a “drop” more energy to the equation.


This brings us to one of the most established effects in psychology, termed the Yerkes-Dodson Law (1908)*.




As the graph shows, any further increase in physiological arousal past a certain point (the midpoint), slowly begins to trigger a reduction in performance. Why? Because at that point, increasing the level of arousal (i.e. energy and effort) causes confusion, frustration, irritability, and disorganization. This is when individuals tend to make mistakes. They also become sick, due to stress’s ability to deplete the immune system. Have you ever gotten sick at the end of a semester, a conflict, or after a big presentation that you’d been long preparing for? If so, you can blame chronic stress.


So, in our society it might seem “normal” to be chronically stressed, but stress (over time) starts to reverse its association with performance, at which point it impedes psychological resources and has been implicated in physical morbidity factors like disease and untimely death. What’s more is that individuals who are highly stressed also tend to change their health behaviors, specifically to increase their alcohol intake, smoke, take in more calories, and decrease sleep.


So, a few rules of thumb seem to apply. Regardless of how chronically stressed we might feel, we should try not to change our diets, sleep, or exercise schedules. We should recognize what is within the realm of what we can handle and rise to the occasion, but develop a greater awareness of what our limits might be. Communicating when expectations seem unreasonable and standing up for ourselves and our needs are concepts that fall under the umbrella term “assertiveness.” If the problems persist and we have no choice but to continue on, then “coping skills” such as taking time to breathe, rest, hydrate, and talk with a friend might help to reduce the physiological and emotional distress that we feel.


For help in these areas, contact a Skyline therapist. We are all well versed in stress management, coping, communication, and assertiveness skills.


Ask how we might be able to create a custom plan for you!


Request a free 15-minute phone consultation with a licensed clinical psychologist




*Graph of Yerkes-Dodson Law principle. Author:User:Vaughan. Source: [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:YerkesDodsonLawGraph.png] Ppermission: Graph was created for Wikipedia and free of copyright - Vaughan 09:43, 26 Oct 2004 (UTC)

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