The modern, fast-paced lifestyle can often make us feel like we are bombarded with stress. Everything is instantaneous and feels like it must happen quickly in the big city. Firstly, what is stress? Stress is a biological response to a stressor. The body reacts to a challenge by activating the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), this response is commonly known as a fight-or-flight response. Many believe that by there are many negative implications to constantly activating the SNS, however, what we must realise is that some stress can be good.
Stress can be motivating. Consider, if you didn’t have to go to work, most people would not get out of bed in the morning. It often happens that if no deadline is given for a task, then the task is often deprioritised. Have you ever wondered why most work is done at the last minute? Almost, every school and university assignment is done at the last minute. Why? Because there is a higher level of stress due to the impending deadline. The deadline produces motivation to get the job done.
There is a concept known as Eustress (Eu- meaning good, coming from the same word usage as euphoria). Eustress is a beneficial form of stress that gives a positive cognitive response that is healthy and often gives a sense of fulfilment. Naturally, the bad form of stress can be known as distress. So, why is stress often bad?
During the early 1900s, two psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, studied the relationship between arousal (stress) and performance. Yerkes & Dobson found that physiological or mental arousal would increase performance but only up to a point. When the arousal became too high, there would be a decrease in performance.
This logically makes sense. If you give a person a small amount of pressure such as a deadline, then they are more likely to do a task than they would if there is no deadline. In contrast, if they are given many tasks, all with deadlines, there would eventually be a point when they would stop being able to complete the tasks and feel overwhelmed.
If we look the graph, when the arousal starts to move from low, there is a steady increase in performance to a point. At that point, there is the peak arousal for optimal performance. After that point, there is a steady decline in performance as the arousal becomes too high.
Another interesting finding from Yerkes & Dobson was that different tasks had different optimal levels of stress. Consider, a golfer, the audience is told to be silent while they are taking a shot to allow them to properly focus. In comparison, a weightlifter will get themselves energised and want the crowd to start clapping to get them pumped to lift the weight. Each of these tasks require different levels of stress due to the different skills required such as concentration on small details.
How can this information help me? When you are performing a task such as an assignment, consider the level of stress that is required to perform the task optimally. Many students give themselves false deadlines so they can complete their assignments faster. Another useful idea is to have an accountability partner, who checks in with you to make sure that you complete the required task. There are apps, such as Stickk, which are designed to be motivating using these principles.