“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” ~ William James
The other day I was watching an old episode of The Big Bang Theory in which Sheldon (a character), who is stuck in his investigation on dark matter, looks for ways of getting stressed on purpose and asks his friends to annoy him. With all of this, he is trying to induce what’s known as productive anxiety, a state of optimal stress for productivity.
Even though the idea is only used as the plot to develop a series of gags that can be more or less funny, the truth is, it’s based on scientific research and is pretty interesting.
The psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson determined in 1908 that there’s an empirical relationship between excitement and performance (Yerkes-Dodson law). According to their discoveries, our performance increases with physiological or mental excitement up to some point. When the excitement is too high and exceeds that point, the performance starts decreasing again.
Too much anxiety weakens you, but there are studies that show that most people can find a point of balance, a point where you have enough anxiety to keep yourself alert and motivated, but not as much as to be afraid or go insane.
The necessary amount of excitement to reach the optimal performance point in a task depends on the type of task. The more complex tasks require a low level of excitement which facilitates concentration, while the more mundane tasks are approached with more motivation if the level or arousal is higher.
Reaching this specific point is not easy, since you need to learn to deal with your anxiety. Experts say that if you get to see anxiety as a normal part of your day to day life, something inevitable, it loses part of its power.
According to this study, most people perceive a higher than optimal level of stress, which is not good. The level of perceived stress lowers with age, with educational levels and income level. In addition, women perceive a stress level slightly higher than men. In this Harvard Business Review video, they summarize in a very didactic way the Yerkes-Dodson law and the results of the aforementioned study.