What the Research Says
Experts in the stress management field have traditionally found it difficult to pinpoint how much stress is optimum. A very recent study, carried out by the University of Ohio, showed the relationship really depended on your definition of performance. In this study, subjects ability to recall simple facts seemed to improve as their stress increased, while their ability to think flexibly and apply those facts to new situations deteriorated.
This is interesting for those of us who learned back in basic stress management theory that the relationship between stress and performance always followed an inverted U -shaped curve. The top of this curve is our optimal stress level. Insufficient stress will leave us feeling bored, tired and lethargic. The closer our stress levels to that optimal stress point, the more excited and enthused we become about our work and our lives. Once we get beyond that optimum level, however, things start going downhill fairly quickly. All manner of negative stress responses kick in, and our performance starts to decline.
Unfortunately, useful as both the new research and the old concept are in terms of general understanding, they're equally frustrating for those of us who are looking for practical ways to optimise our performance. Even if experts could agree on the relationship between stress and performance, it still wouldn't tell us where our own optimal levels stress lay, because stress responses are so individual.
Focussing on the Effects
If we want a practical guide to optimising our performance, it's probably more useful to step away from the research and redirect our focus. In the same way as we've been taught to "know a tree by its fruit," perhaps the most practical way we discover our optimal stress is to look at the effects. We know that a limited level of stress can have positive effects on our performance, including:
At the same time, we also have well documented cases of too much stress leading to:
If we focus on these effects, we can identify our optimum stress level by looking at our current performance and motivation levels. It's not always easy to be objective. Sometimes asking for a second opinion from a friend or colleague can help. Other times a little time spent reflecting-journaling or just thinking it through alone-may be all that's needed.
Either way, it's important to look at what stressors are present, and where performance and motivation levels are. It can also be helpful to look at whether there have been any noticeable shifts in either recently, and what events or changes were taking place at the same time (whether or not they felt like stressors at the time).
Once we have a feel for what stressors we ve been facing, and how we're really performing, we're in a better position to understand the relationship between stress and performance in our lives. And once we understand that, ensuring the right level of stress for optimum performance becomes a matter of details.