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Stress and Performance: What You Need to Know

How do you control stress? If you ask a doctor, they would way take an antianxiety drug. If you would ask a U.S. Marine, they might say, “Stress, what stress?” But if you ask a psychologist, they would say, “You control stress with your mind.” This page provides the basic understanding needed to use the mind to control your stress and enhance your performance.

By Murray Johannsen. Questions? Contact by email or connect on Linkedin Profile

Hieronymus Bosch The Seven Deadly Sins. Gluttony. One explanation for overeating is that eating is used as a way of reducing one’s stress

Reduce The Impact of Stressors

Jan Styka (1858–1925) : Dream of Polish volunteers in French trenches

For those who like to run to the doctor for the magic pill, it’s essential to understand that ultimately relying on a chemical solution is not fixing the cause; it is only fixing the symptom. 

Have you ever seen a disaster movie where an extreme stressor such as an earthquake happens? Some people panic. They lose it and likely die because we always make bad decisions when panicked. But others who face the same external stressor more calmly will have a much higher probability of getting through it. 

The Stress-Performance Curve 

The stress performance curve has been around sense 1908. It forms the basis for some very important understandings regarding control of stress.
While most people perceive the impact of stress as negative, there are a few positives. And to understand this, we need to look at the Yerkes-Dodson Law. (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908) The stress performance curve has been around since 1908. It forms the basis for some fundamental understandings regarding the control of stress.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law 

On the right side of the curve, we do not deal with stress appropriately. If taking a test puts you in this zone, your mind will not do as well if you were at optimum arousal. Likewise, one can increase performance on the left side of the curve but only up to a certain point. If you are driving, you would have enough stress in the system to be mentally alert.

The Original Yerkes-Dodson Curves

Original Version

This is the original Yerkes-Dodson curve based on the actual evidence from Yerkes and Dodson 1908. The Hebbian version of this curve became popular sometime after the 1950s. Source: Diamond DM, et al. (2007).

 Hebbian Version of the Law

Original Source: Diamond DM, et al. (2007).

About Peak Performance

This curve is the one that is most commonly used. And unless you are dealing with an overlearned task, it is the one that we assume applies to most activities we do at work.

You have all heard it from the performance gurus—perform at your peak. In effect, that means you increase your stress to a certain level. Too much, and you don’t perform well. Too little, and you don’t perform either. However, people typically don’t stay in their “peak performance zone.” So we might ask, do they move to the left, or do they move to the right?

 How To Control Stress by Shifting The Curve

To do this, you need to take control of the curve. We need to be more like weight lifters who, before the lift, psych themselves up to peak performance. And then, after the event, they relax and move back to the left, to unwind and  calm down before beginning the psych-up process for the event (Ford, 2014)

Option 1: Shift the Stress-Performance Curve To the Right

In effect, through training, one can learn to tolerate higher stress loads than would typically be the case. For example, for many, making a presentation causes great fear. However, if the same expression is repeated, one doesn’t feel that same level of anxiety as the first time.

Option 2: Psych Yourself Up: Increase Stress To Peak Performance

Certain situations require that you increase your stress to be able to deal with the situation appropriately. The classic example is the fireman putting out a fire. However, while one can get to peak performance, one cannot stay there. Fatigue enters the picture in both the mind and the body.

Option 3: Relax Yourself: Move From Distress into Eustress

On the right side of the curve, stress causes performance to decrease. Burnout is more chronic. Fatigue occurs daily. Panic rarely or never in most people.

Control The Possibility of Panic

One of the most debilitating very of this is known as panic. Panic attacks are not predictable. There are essentially irrational, but that does not mean they are easy to control. So when you hear people’s descriptions of stress run amuck, you understand why.

Some theorists use the analogy of the normal distribution to say that one needs a relaxation phase after a performance phase and that one can avoid burnout by relaxing.

Avoid Burn Out

Burnout is not a medical term, but it can happen. It’s the last thing you want to have to happen to keep a job. Unfortunately, unlike panic, which lasts for around ten minutes, burnout can go on for months – long enough that you will surely lose your job. The first time I saw it was at the university. A student was very committed to her work in student government, working a job, and studying. It all became too much for her, and she couldn’t even concentrate enough to read books, let alone study. So, she ended up dropping out of class for the semester.

Too often, we slip to the right. As a result, we end up anxious, exhausted, or stressed out. These are relatively easy to deal with. However, one does not want the stress load to take you either into panic or burnout.

Frontispiece to chapter 12 of 1905 edition of J. Allen St. John’s The Face in the Pool, published 1905. To face your stressors, you will need to “face your demons, your fears, your worries.”

“Stress should be a powerful driving force, not an obstacle.”Bill Phillips.

Stress relief consists of many different techniques that allow you to control your stress better. Not only that, but if you get good at this, you can not just manage your anxiety but set an optimal level to adjust your stress to the activity you are performing. This is the goal. 

Learn To Dial Down Stress

Accessing Site Resources


Ford, Donovan (2014). Preparing For Weight Lifting Competition., February 4.

Ascher, Jan and Tonies, Fleur (2021). How to Turn Stress into Optimal Stress, McKinsey Quarterly.

Yerkes, Robert M.  andDodson, John D.  (1908). The Relation of Strength of Stimulus To Rapidity of Habit Formation, Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459-482 

A Guide to Psychology and Its Practice (2014). The Psychology of Stress.

Work Skills For the 21st Century