Stress is frequently regarded as a negative experience; to be avoided, if at all possible. In evolutionary terms however, stress is a vital defence response and stress activation is critical to keep individuals safe and maintain the human race. There are two forms of stress: Eustress is a healthy, stimulating, positive force that helps us perform at our best; whereas dystress is an unhealthy, negative force that impedes our performance. Dystress may involve acute or chronic forms, depending upon the intensity and duration of the stress stimulus. The level of stress determines which form of stress (eustress or dystress) is experienced.
Stress occurs when the hypothalamus signals the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline. These stress hormones are responsible for increasing the rate of breathing, heart rate and blood pressure to ensure that an increased level of oxygenated blood reaches the brain and muscles in preparation for a quick fight-or-flight response. Visual and auditory acuity are heightened; attention becomes focused; decision-making improves and memory is strengthened. These positive effects of eustress improve individual performance, but only up to a certain point.
There is an optimal level of stress that facilitates peak performance. Yerkes-Dodson’s Law, developed by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, was developed when these researchers identified that we can have too much of a good thing. Too much stress arousal begins to have the opposite effect and diminishes the level of functioning and performance.
As an analogy for stress arousal, let’s consider the experience of a surfer. When the water is flat, a surfer sits on the surfboard, becalmed and going nowhere. A lack of arousal means there is no motivation to move, to learn, to produce, to change or to be active. As the wave (or arousal) builds, there is a force that pushes the surfer (or student) forward, prompting movement and performance. Where the surfer or student has already mastered skills appropriate to the task, eustress promotes optimum performance. As the wave continues to build, becomes larger and the momentum greater, the surfer is at risk of experiencing a wipe-out. Too much arousal tips the level into dystress; concentration, memory, and cognitive performance diminish. Mild to moderate levels of eustress help students achieve peak performance during assessment. Higher waves of stress are likely to overwhelm a student’s capacity to perform and lead to poor results.
Managing stress is essential. It is critical for students to build self-awareness about personal arousal and behavioural response patterns. These are individual and vary according to the situation, subject and form of assessment (e.g. oral, assignment or exam). Students can establish preventative strategies and immunize themselves against dystress by maintaining good nutrition, adequate sleep, regular exercise and relaxing breaks. There is a tendency for good habits to erode as stress levels increase, so it is important to guard against this. Managing time, so that academic work is spread across the whole term or time available and not squeezed into the last few days or hours, reduces stress. This is often easier said than done but planning ahead and the regular use of calendars, timetables and lists, will assist students. Stress contributes to peak performance but must be understood and managed to maintain an optimal level.
© Michele Juratowitch