By: Hiren Khemlani – Performance Psychologist and Director of Peak of Mind
Not all stress is bad stress. In fact, a certain level of stress can be beneficial for performance. The relationship between arousal (stress) and performance can be described as an inverted U (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). At low levels of physiological arousal (not enough stress), we may feel unmotivated or lethargic and performance suffers. As stress increases, we become more alert and focused until we reach a point that can be described as the optimal level of arousal and performance. The optimum amount of stress will vary for different tasks based on factors like your familiarity with the task or its complexity (Gould & Krane, 1992). However, beyond this optimal point stress starts to overwhelm our system causing impairments in performance, anxiety and burnout.
As such, while some stress can be good (i.e. eustress), too much stress (i.e. distress) can have dire consequences. High levels of stress can overload the cognitive processing centres in our brain affecting our attention, memory and decision-making (LeBlanc, 2009). Perhaps more importantly, stress impacts your physical and mental health, which can subsequently affect your performance (Colligan & Higgins, 2006). After all, you’re not going to do your best work when you’re struggling with headaches, sleeplessness, and battling issues such as anxiety and depression all due to chronic stress.
It is therefore imperative that we learn to manage our stress. The first step to doing this is to build your self-awareness. Check in with yourself regularly and notice how you are feeling and the different issues you are dealing with. A good exercise is to write down the stressors that are most prevalent at a given time. Notice how you are coping with each of these stressors, and how you are managing your emotions in relation to these. Furthermore, there are lots of different scales and questionnaires online that you can use to gauge and reflect on your current stress levels. You can find one such tool here(based on the Perceived Stress Scale; Cohen, Kamarck & Mermelstein, 1983).
There are several strategies we can use to alleviate some of our stress. Research shows that different coping strategies can improve our well-being through increasing our perceived sense of control (Dijkstra & Homan, 2016). Identify where your control lies in relation to the stressors in your life, and focus on the aspects that allow you to make choices. Feeling a sense of autonomy that comes with the ability to make choices can be important for motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2004). Similarly, find opportunities to be yourself in the workplace. You’re probably going to be happier when you’re aligning yourself with your values and being your true self (Cable, Gino & Staats, 2013).
Finally, relaxation techniques including meditation and mindfulness exercises can be helpful in terms of reducing the physiological effects of stress, alleviating anxiety, and improving focus and overall performance in the workplace (Desrosiers, Klemanski & Nolen-Hoeksema, 2013; Hafenbrack, 2017; Heckenberg, 2018). One simple exercise to try is called the 5-senses exercise. The next time you feel overwhelmed, aim to identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel/touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. Relaxation exercises such as these that bring your attention to the present moment (e.g. Breathing exercises, body scan etc.) Can protect against rumination and worry. Build a habit of mindfulness and reap the benefits in the long-run in terms of your well-being and your performance.
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