Stress and Performance

Within the last couple of decades, neuroscience has given us increased knowledge of the physiological and psychological reactions the body and mind experience when exposed to stress. This enhanced understanding now gives us the ability to improve the resilience of our forces and increase operational effectiveness.

Stress can be defined as the wear and tear on the body caused by the need to adapt to changes in the environment. Stress is highly individual, so what is deemed stressful for one individual may not be for another. Also, remember that stress does not have to come from a big adverse or traumatic event. Daily hassles, the everyday issues (i.e. traffic jams, negative work environment, etc.) that make us upset at work or at home, may have a bigger impact on our mental health than large stressful events.

Furthermore, not all stress is negative. The Yerkes- Dodson law states that performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (stress), but only up to a certain point (Diamond, et al, 2007).

Therefore, this means that when stress levels are too low or too high, performances decreases. This is demonstrated in the graph below.

Graph with a green arch showing that performance increases with arousal to a certain point but will decrease beyond that optimal level of arousal.
Text Description of Graph

The above graph shows “performance” along the y-axis and “arousal” along the x-axis. The indicator "low" appears on the left of the x-axis (arousal), the indicator "medium" appears halfway along the x-axis, the indicator "high" appears on the right of the x-axis. These indicators represent the level of arousal. A green line starting at the 0,0 position on the graph (low arousal) forms an arch that peaks at medium arousal and arches back down to high arousal on the x-axis. The green arch demonstrates that performance increases with arousal to a certain point but will decrease beyond that optimal level of arousal. To further clarify, the space under the arch is divided vertically into three sections. The middle section (shaded in grey), which consists of the highest point of the arch, is the zone of optimal performance. This is where there is optimal performance above the individual’s comfort zone, but the arousal remains manageable. To the left of the optimal (grey middle) section is when arousal is too low and performance is also sub-optimal as there is no growth. To the right of the optimal (grey middle) section is when arousal is too high and performance decreases due to weakening or physical breakdown.

While the most common challenge in a military environment is typically managing high levels of stress or arousal, managing under arousal is also important. Such issues as sleep deprivation, fatigue, boredom, or complacency can lead to too little arousal and thus impact performance. This is represented by the left side of the diagram. The right side of the diagram represents distress, which occurs when the stressor is beyond our ability to continue to cope and perform effectively.

The key is to understand our physiological reactions to stress and use strategies to manage these reactions in order to stay in the optimal zone for performance.

Physiology & the Brain

Both chronic stress and acute stressors can trigger a physiological reaction in our body and can enact the stress response (also referred to as the fight/flight/freeze response). The stress response is the body’s automatic defence reaction to a perceived threat, real or imagined. When confronted with stress the nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. Heart rate increases, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and the senses become sharper.

The stress response system (Fight/Flight/Freeze) is not under our direct control. It is a reflex programmed by evolution that kicks in when we are challenged. However, even though we don’t control it directly, understanding how Fight/Flight/Freeze works can give us some indirect influence over stress, and prevent its effects from becoming harmful or chronic.

It is possible for a person to intervene and regain control over this response to stress by starting to slow down the process. This is achieved by employing stress countermeasures to relax the body, slow the breath and increase the flow of oxygen to the brain. The ability to relax does not come easily — it is a skill that has to be learned and practiced.

The physical effects of applying arousal reduction techniques include:

  • Immediate changes — lowering of blood pressure, heart rate, breath rate, and oxygen consumption
  • Long term changes (after repeated practice) — decrease in anxiety and depression, as well as an improvement in ability to cope with life stressors

Page details

Date modified: