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I am excited”: Making Stress Work for You, Instead of Against You

Image: The Yerkes-Dod­son Law (YDL)

How much stress is good for you?

In 1908, Robert Mearns Yerkes and John Dilling­ham Dod­son designed an exper­i­ment that would begin to tack­le the ques­tion, “How much stress is good for you?”

The researchers tracked mice to see how stress would affect their abil­i­ty to learn. Simple—yet painful, because how do you stress out mice? You shock them. The researchers set up two cor­ri­dors to choose from—one paint­ed white and the oth­er black—and if a mouse went down the black cor­ri­dor, ZAP! Yerkes and Dod­son observed that giv­en too mild a shock, the mice just shrugged it off and kept on keepin’ on—no big­gie if they made the same mis­take again. Too big a jolt, and the stress left them too fraz­zled too fig­ure out what had just hap­pened and how to make that not hap­pen again. Those who learned most quickly—indeed, those mice that might need half as much time to learn which cor­ri­dor to take—did it Goldilocks style: the size of their shock was juu­u­u­ust right.

You may not be a mouse, but research shows that you learn like one.

Not that we are sug­gest­ing self-elec­tro­cu­tion (to do so would be high­ly unethical—fascinating, but high­ly uneth­i­cal). But a just-right dose of stress can lead to your peak per­for­mance. Ed Ehlinger of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta stud­ied almost 10,000 stu­dents and found that those who couldn’t man­age their stress (32 per­cent of them) had a 0.5 drop in their GPA com­pared to their less-stressed-out peers. Imag­ine if get­ting your ZAP on in just the right way enabled you to learn math­/Eng­lish/any­thing-else-you-want in less time and learn it bet­ter.

The Yerkes-Dod­son exper­i­ments have risen to promi­nence as the Yerkes-Dod­son Law (YDL) and have become the key to under­stand­ing the rela­tion­ship between stress and our abil­i­ty to change, learn, and per­form. The YDL even comes with a handy-dandy YDL curve (see above) that helps us under­stand how to think about stress in rela­tion to our per­for­mance in col­lege and beyond.

One of the many beau­ties of the YDL curve is its sim­plic­i­ty: if you have too lit­tle stress (the left side of the curve) or too much stress (the right side), you miss out on oppor­tu­ni­ties to learn, change, per­form, or basi­cal­ly do any­thing in col­lege to help real­ize your poten­tial. Sim­ple? Yes. Per­ti­nent? Very.

Kris­ten Joan Ander­son, a psy­chol­o­gist at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, did her ver­sion of the mouse-ZAP study on 100 col­lege stu­dents, giv­ing them esca­lat­ing amounts of caf­feine and hav­ing them answer ques­tions like the ones in the ver­bal sec­tion of the Grad­u­ate Record Exam­i­na­tions (GREs). She found that many col­lege stu­dents (and the rest of us), par­tic­u­lar­ly with dif­fi­cult tasks, per­form their best at lev­els of stim­u­la­tion that look a lot like the YDL curve (for those inter­est­ed: about two cups seems to do it).

Inter­est­ing­ly, though, a feel­ing of con­trol over stress pro­found­ly impacts the effects of being stressed out. A 2015 study about stress and its impact on test scores found that, regard­less of how “stressed out” the stu­dents real­ly were, if they felt they could han­dle it, their grades were not impact­ed. For many of us, real­iz­ing that stress isn’t going to be a life­long ene­my gives us a sense of con­trol. The stress may stick around, in vary­ing degrees, but your suf­fer­ing can be dimin­ished in a very big way. How you relate to, tol­er­ate, and man­age stress in any giv­en sit­u­a­tion dic­tates how well you can take advan­tage of it.

One Solution: Get Excited to Stay Calm

If you are think­ing that try­ing to keep calm is the way to go when you are stressed out, wel­come to the vast major­i­ty. Har­vard Busi­ness School pro­fes­sor Ali­son Wood Brooks found that 85 per­cent of peo­ple advise calm in the face of the storm. Yet not only does that not work, it actu­al­ly has the oppo­site effect.

In a study using the clas­sic com­bi­na­tion of col­lege stu­dents and karaoke, Brooks found that telling one­self to chillax is in fact a stress gen­er­a­tor. She asked col­lege stu­dents to per­form karaoke in pub­lic, but before they went onstage, the sub­jects were divid­ed into three groups and primed with one of three ideas: say noth­ing, say “I am excit­ed,” or say “I am anx­ious.” Kind of like in an audi­tion for The Voice, sub­jects were rat­ed for pitch, vol­ume, and rhythm by both com­put­ers and researchers (sad­ly, none of whom resem­bled Adam Levine or Shaki­ra). The “I am anx­ious” group scored 53 per­cent, the low­est, appar­ent­ly freak­ing them­selves out and show­ing that cer­tain self-state­ments can do more harm than good. If they were told to say noth­ing, their aver­age score was 69 per­cent.

But the “I am excit­ed” group scored an aver­age of 81 per­cent. When you can har­ness your chal­lenge response, you can take advan­tage of your phys­i­ol­o­gy and your mind, and you can kill it!

The “I am excit­ed” group felt just as much anx­i­ety as the “I am anx­ious” group and the group that said noth­ing, but they also felt more capa­ble and were observed by their audi­ence to be more con­fi­dent. Feel­ing that you have con­trol over stress doesn’t mean you stop “feel­ing” it. If you need to be intox­i­cat­ed to per­form karaoke, this exper­i­ment might not seem believ­able to you, but Brooks also stud­ied peo­ple who had to give a speech or per­form math prob­lems. Same results: bet­ter per­for­mance and an even greater feel­ing of com­pe­tence.

We are not say­ing you will enjoy swim­ming with sharks if you just say “I am excit­ed.” There is a time and place for you to actu­al­ly fight or flee. But the next time some­thing is at stake (oth­er than your actu­al life) and you feel but­ter­flies in your stom­ach and your heart pound­ing, remem­ber that feel­ing scared and feel­ing excit­ed often go hand in hand, and choos­ing one over the oth­er (lit­er­al­ly just say­ing out loud “I am excit­ed”) will make all the dif­fer­ence.

– This is an excerpt from U Thrive: How to Suc­ceed in Col­lege (and Life) (Lit­tle and Brown, April, 2017), by Dan Lern­er and Dr. Alan Schlechter. Dan Lern­er is a strengths-based per­for­mance coach, teacher and speak­er, on the fac­ul­ty at New York Uni­ver­si­ty (where he co-teach­es “The Sci­ence of Hap­pi­ness”) and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia (where he works with the grad­u­ate pro­gram in Applied Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy). Dr. Alan Schlechter, is the Direc­tor of the Child and Ado­les­cent Psy­chi­a­try Clin­ic at Belle­vue Hos­pi­tal Cen­ter. In his role as Direc­tor he treats and helps orga­nize the care of some of the most vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren and fam­i­lies in New York City.

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