I call stress the ‘double-edged sword’ because while we need stress and pressure for optimum performance we can very easily tip over into stress that affects our performance and makes us ill. Some people now refer to this as ‘toxic stress’, as in ‘good’ stress versus ‘toxic’ or damaging stress.
The reality is that all stress can be both good and bad.
We are all familiar with the deadline approaching and the adrenaline rush that helps us focus and increase our productivity. We are all familiar with the last-minute efficiency we experience when we reach the deadline of exam dates, end of year audits, and so on: we get more energy, our focus improves and we get the job done – most of the time. This, in simple terms, is good stress.
But if we are not stress aware, not stress resistant or too over-stretched then this type of pressure can be damaging rather than stimulating.
Many years ago, in 1908, two psychologists (Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson) developed a theory to explain why some stress was helpful and too much stress unhelpful. This became known as the Yerkes–Dodson Law. This concept over the years has been represented by a curve and is called the ‘inverted U curve’. The idea is based on principles taken from physics and states that our levels of performance vary according to the amount of pressure or stress that we come under.
We need some pressure to perform, otherwise we will be too laid-back or too ‘chilled out’. Up to a certain point additional pressure is helpful but we then reach a plateau point or the point of ‘optimum performance’. This is often referred to as ‘being in the zone’ and athletes’ performances are often discussed in these terms – the emphasis being on creating enough pressure so that they perform optimally and to the best of their ability but also allowing them sufficient recovery time.
If we do not have enough stress we are underloaded, leaving us inactive and too laid-back, and if we have too much stress we can become overloaded, burnt out and sick. The idea is to keep ourselves in the zone of ‘optimum’ stress where we are functioning to capacity with a reasonable degree of stress. Problems for our health arise when we move into the overload area and stay there for too long, but it is a fine line between enough and too much.
Short bursts of overload activity are manageable but we run the risk of getting burned out if we have too many without time to recover; think of the engine at full throttle for extended periods – it would overheat. An everyday example is studying for exams or end-of-year deadlines. It is good to feel under pressure and it helps us get the job done, putting in the extra hours, but try continuing this for more than a few days or weeks and we get depleted and risk becoming unproductive and unwell.
Professor Abbie Lane