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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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