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.?” And if you ask a psychologist, this they would say, “You control stress with your mind.” And that is the purpose for this page, to provide the basic understanding that’s needed to use the mind to control your stress.
For those of you who like to run to the doctor for the magic pill, it’s important 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 literally lose it and likely die because use almost always make bad decisions when paniced. But others, who face the same external stressor, more calmly and will have a much higher probability of getting through it.
The Stress-Performance Curve — Formaly Known as The Yerkes-Dodson Law
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)
On the right side of the curve we do not deal with stress properly. If taking a test puts you in this zone, your mind will not do as well in 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 to have enough stress in the system to be mentally alert.
The Original Yerkes-Dodson Curves
Hebbian Version of the Law
About Peak Performance
This curve is the one that is most commonly used. And unless you are dealing with an over learned 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 up your stress to a certain leve. Too much and you don’t perform well. Too little and you don’t perform either. However, people normally 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?
To do this, you really need to take control of the curve. We need to be more like weight lifters who prior to 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 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 normally be the case. For example, for many, making a presentation causes a great deal of fear. However, if the same presentation is done again and again, 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 properly. 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
Too often, we slip to the right. We end up in anxious, fatigued 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.
Ford, Donovan (2014). Preparing For Weight Lifting Competition. jtsstrength.com, February 4.
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 It’s Practice (2014). The Psychology of Stress.