A research study completed at the turn of the 20th century addresses the relationship between stress and performance. Robert Yerkes and John Dodson motivated mice to solve a maze, correcting their errors with an electric pulse – which in turn increased their stress. Yerkes and Dodson observed that the mice’s performance improved as their stress rose due to increased shock voltage. However, after a certain threshold, the mice began to cower from trying new routes, and their average performance time worsened.
Essentially, Yerkes and Dodson concluded that a subject is more productive under stress, but only to a specific threshold. It is important to balance both sides of the coin. On one hand, a more stressful environment spurs creative problem solving. On the other hand, too much stress disallows meaningful productivity. Another factor to consider is the long-term effect of excessive stress during extended problem solving. Consider how the mice react to daily stress past their “productive threshold.” Would the mice have difficulty sleeping? Maybe the average solution time would diminish over time, or perhaps the mice would be more hesitant to pursue the maze at all.
This study has long provided an analogy for performance under stress. Even a skilled member of a team can fail a simple, well-learned task due to situational stress. Imagine an athlete failing to complete a straight-forward task during the final minute of a championship game. Having lived in Dallas, Texas for three years, I watched a familiar example of situational stress failures happen on January 6th, 2007. With a minute left in the NFC Wild Card game, Tony Romo botched a simple 19-yard field goal hold and got tackled short of the end zone. Romo’s simple mistake ended the career of decorated head coach, Bill Parcels, and caused the Cowboy’s playoff hopes to end abruptly. This example and countless other situations point to the same conslusion: it is important to learn how to mitigate and manage professional stress.
Harvard Medical School published an article in September, 2016 regarding practical stress reduction. The suggestions include breath focus and body scan, which propose slow breathing and focusing on a specific part of one’s body to release any immediate physical tension felt. The next two, guided imagery and mindfulness meditation, involve calmly focusing on an image or moment. The idea is to draw one’s mind back to the present – to refocus on the current tasks at hand. Additionally, Harvard Medical suggests spiritual practices to calm oneself. Yoga, tai chi, and qigong all utilize proper posture and breathing to bring about relief. Lastly, prayer or affirmations can be useful when implemented habitually.
Beyond learnable techniques to combat agitation, stress mitigation is an important habit to cultivate. By taking a few moments of each day to focus, one can improve response time in overcoming stress. Focus not only your immediate objectives for the day, but for the week, month, and year. In other words, one should dedicate each day and its hardships towards a higher intention — whether it be your children, earning for a trip, love for God, or growing your quarterly bonus check.
 Corliss, Julie. Six relaxation techniques to reduce stress. Harvard Heart Letter. September 2016.