How Emotionally Intelligent People Use the Yerkes-Dodson Law to Turn Anxiety and Stress Into Optimal Performance and Achievement

According to a century-old psychological model, feeling the right amount of stress is actually good for you.

My flight was hours late. Traffic was terrible. The driver took a wrong turn. I finally made it to the conference center 20 minutes before I was scheduled to speak.

As my Inc. colleague Justin Bariso says about emotional intelligence, my emotions were working against me, not for me.

Stressed? You bet. Convinced I’d die a horrible death onstage? Oh, yeah.

It’s hard to do your best when you feel anxious, nervous, or pressured. Reams of research show stress can negatively affect performance.

But not always.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law

The Yerkes-Dodson law is a psychological principle that describes the relationship between arousal (not that kind of arousal) and performance.

Too much stress, and performance declines. But up to a certain point, anxiety and stress actually improve performance.

How much stress is too much stress? Clearly that depends. Feeling stressed because I’m running five minutes behind when I planned to get to the airport is unlikely to affect my driving.

Spending all day worrying about whether I’d make it to an event on time, and having those fears nearly realized, is a different story.

Again, though, not always.

Stress and Reframing

When something happens that makes you feel stressed — nervous, challenged, scared, etc. — your body responds. Your heart rate increases. Your breathing might get shallower and faster. Your body temperature rises.

Those responses are automatic and normal. Your body spotted a problem or challenge and said, “Let’s gear up!” That’s the upside of the Yerkes-Dodson law.

The problem is, you also vasoconstrict. The muscles inside your blood vessels tighten, making the space inside smaller. Vasoconstriction raises your blood pressure and reduces circulation to your extremities (which is why, when you feel super-stressed, your fingers and toes can feel cold.)

That natural response to a more serious problem or challenge is terrible for you, and therefore for how you perform — unless you apply some emotional intelligence and do a little reframing.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that when people viewed their stress response as helpful — when their body’s natural response to stress, like increased heart and respiration rate, signaled their rising to the challenge — they didn’t vasoconstrict. Their blood pressure didn’t rise.

In fact, their physiological profiles looked like what Stanford professor Kelly McGonigal describes in her 2013 TED Talk as what happens in “moments of joy and courage.”

Simply thinking about stress differently — seeing stress not as a problem, but as a good thing — changed how their bodies responded. Their “arousal” level stayed on the helpful side of the Yerkes-Dodson law curve.

So as the sound tech fitted my mic, I took a deep breath and decided that arriving in the nick of time was a good thing. I didn’t have time to pace. I didn’t have time to peek out and see the hundreds of people finding their seats. I didn’t have time to make small-talk with people backstage to help the time pass.

I tried to smile and see being “late” as a challenge to overcome. As Nascar Cup Series champion Joey Logano once told me, pressure is something you want to feel. Feeing pressure means you’re in a position to do something meaningful. Something important. Something where the outcome truly matters.

As Logano says, pressure is a privilege.

Did it work? Not completely. Looking back, I give myself an A-minus. (OK, a B-plus.) I was still a little too amped up and rushed the first minute. I could have read the room a little better. Overall, I wasn’t as smooth as I would have liked.

But I performed a lot better than I might have.

When you feel nervous or stressed — when your heart rate rises, and your breathing quickens — reframe the feeling and help your emotions work for you.

See it as your body rising to a challenge, helping you be more able to step in or step up. See stress as a signal that you have the opportunity to make your life better.

Sure, you will never totally control how you feel. But with a little reframing, you can stay on the positive side of the Yerkes-Dodson law curve, and use stress as a tool to help you perform at your best.