In 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson first mapped out the empirical relationship between ‘arousal’ (meaning psychological alertness) and performance. They found that performance increases with physiological arousal, but only up to a point. When levels of arousal become too high, performance decreases. This is called the “Yerkes–Dodson law”.
When they stumbled upon the concept, they were actually experimenting by giving small electric shocks to mice in a maze. Not amazingly relevant to everyday life but the concept is easier to imagine when you think about coffee. With one cup you might feel ready to face the day, but after ten you more likely to feel close to a breakdown!
One area where this “law” has been further explored is in relation to stress. Too much stress is bad. But what about when the pressure of a deadline challenges you to achieve more than you thought you could?
Advances in neuroscience have given further insight into the processes behind this relationship.
“Good stress gets us engaged, enthused and motivated, and mobilizes just enough of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, along with beneficial brain chemicals like dopamine, to do the job effectively.” says Dan Goleman PhD, psychologist and science journalist.
“But when demands become too great for us to handle, when the pressure overwhelms us, too much to do with too little time or support, we enter the zone of bad stress. Just beyond the optimal zone at the top or the performance arc, there is a tipping point where the brain secretes too many stress hormones, and they start to interfere with our ability to work well, to learn, to innovate, to listen, and to plan effectively.”
In the UK, in 2014/15, stress accounted for 35% of all work related ill health cases and 43% of all working days lost due to ill health. In the US, in 2013, 62% of people reported experiencing high levels of stress, with extreme fatigue and feeling out of control.
So where is the middle ground?
Unsurprisingly, it depends from person to person.
Take the example of a jet pilot. In a situation that would feel seriously stressful for most people, these pilots reach optimum performance. This is because to qualify as a jet pilot, your reaction time has to be exceptionally high.
Staying in tune with how you're feeling is key to striking the balance.
For Dan Goleman, this means noticing when "we, or others, have left the zone of positive stress and peak performance, so we can apply the apt remedy." Whether this is a break or a new challenge is up to you!