Skip to main content

You may not have heard about the Yerkes-Dodson Law, but the century-old insight has a lot to say about stress in your life. Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson looked at the relationship between arousal – a measure of stress – and performance. Initially, stress can help our performance improve but as it rises from medium to high levels, performance dips.

"We all need a certain level of stress to perform well in whatever we do," psychologists Dana Gionta, of Brantford, Conn., and Dan Guerra, of New York City, write in their new book From Stressed to Centered.

"For most of us, problems come when our arousal and resulting stress is at a high level for an extended period of time. Under this circumstance, the level and duration of arousal may not match the task we are performing and often impairs our performance."

Stress, of course, can come from "good" things (a promotion, wedding preparations, having a baby) as well as bad (getting a new, obnoxious boss; road construction for an extended period of time on your commute; or death of a spouse). All of it can create emotional and physical agitation.

"Whatever the event, it's how we experience it that's important. We need to tune into our body symptoms and if getting distress, figure out how we can manage it so we can enjoy this positive event like a wedding or having a baby. Otherwise, it can compromise our ability to enjoy the event," Dr. Guerra said in an interview.

When stress becomes overwhelming, he said it moves from being stress to distress. Instead, we want to find a centred, balanced approach to our life. That involves focusing on three areas where stress can register – breath, body, and thoughts – as well as some handy exercises to help moderate its impact. "We can create a sense of well-being, shifting from flight and fight to rest and digest," he said.

They offer many techniques in their book, some of which will be familiar. You can, for example, practise four-two-eight breathing, inhaling from the diaphragm for a count of four, holding for a count of two, and then exhaling as you count to eight. You can accentuate that with progressive muscle relaxation, taking calmness deeper into the body by tensing and relaxing different muscle groups.

Our thoughts, of course, can prevent us from relaxing, but the authors argue we don't have to be a slave to the intense and worried notions of the day. That involves two steps. The first is to give the mind the command to stop when you are experiencing repetitive worrisome, negative, or catastrophic thoughts. The second step is to replace the downbeat thought with something more positive and realistic. "Thoughts are a major culprit of how we experience life. There are the events, and there is the appraisal of these events – our thoughts. We can change our thinking by practising thought stopping and thought replacement," he notes.

Setting boundaries can also help enormously with reducing stress. Boundaries help to protect us by clarifying what is our responsibility and what is another person's. They preserve our physical and emotional energy, allowing us to stay focused on ourselves – to live in harmony with our values and standards. Identifying our personal limits can be crucial to living a balanced life. However, Dr. Gionta says, "Often people don't recognize limits, and when they recognize limits they often don't set boundaries."

Most of us have experienced that situation. We feel guilty for limiting others, telling someone we won't respond to e-mail on the weekend, for example. It seems selfish, putting ourselves first. We might even feel we don't have the right to set boundaries. Or we worry we will jeopardize a relationship by erecting a boundary around the individual. "It's a skill and we don't learn it in our families growing up, or in school, or at work," she says. "The majority of people are very poor at setting and maintaining boundaries."

If you recognize that deficiency in yourself, seek a coach or mentor who can help you sort through the emotional quicksand of boundary setting. Work slowly, setting small, perhaps even trivial, boundaries in one part of your life. You might begin with a friend or a relative, choosing something you know they will readily accept. As you gain some success with this skill, you will gain confidence and be able to extend it to larger issues throughout your life.

Be strategic, rating situations where boundaries might be considered on a scale of one to 10. If it's a 10, you probably need to act but with something scored a two or three maybe you can let it be. "Learning to set boundaries is an invaluable tool in preventing stress and managing it more effectively," she said.

More broadly, Dr. Guerra says it's important to realize that stress is unavoidable in your life. Sometimes it can be positive while other times, it can lead to distress. "But you can absolutely have an impact by doing something from the ideas we give – and that something can be small and achievable," he concludes.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter