THE PHYSIOLOGY OF STRESS
Th e fi rst step in monitoring and managing stress is understanding our physiological responses to stressors, says Benson, who is also an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. Stress activates the body’s fi ght-or-fl ight response: heart rate and blood pressure go up, and several hormones are released into the blood stream, the most important of which are epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and cortisol.
In the short term, these hormones boost our focus, memory, and creativity. A century ago, Harvard
researchers Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson calibrated the relationship between stress arousal and performance, fi nding that as stress goes up, so do effi ciency and performance. However, once stress exceeds a certain level, they noted, its benefi ts disappear and performance declines. Mental fl exibility, concentration, and mood all take a hit.
Th is relationship between performance and stress has been dubbed the Yerkes-Dodson curve. Th is graphic represents it:
IDENTIFY YOUR PERSONAL STRESS-RESPONSE PATTERN
Everyone reacts to stress diff erently; X amount of stress might be energizing for you but debilitating for your neighbor. How people respond when their stress levels are getting too high is also individual, although a person’s response tends to be consistent over time. Th e symptoms of excess stress may be physical, cognitive, or aff ective (relating to mood)—or some combination thereof.
To recognize how you respond when you’re edging closer to the downward slope of the Yerkes-Dodson curve:
Pay attention to your attention. Aft er a solid stretch of productive work, do you suddenly fi nd yourself compelled to check out the latest sports scores online or pay a visit to the vending machines? Are you having
Copyright © 2009 by Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
Monitor and Manage Your Stress Level for Top Performance Some stress can drive you to perform better. But too much can get the better of you.
by Judith A. Ross
THE YERKES-DODSON CURVE
ef fi c
Stress or anxiety
Managing Stress continued
diffi culty maintaining the focus and energy you applied to your work a half-hour ago?
Take note of your mood. Are you less optimistic about the outcome of your project than you were an hour into it? Has your excitement about tackling a knotty challenge shift ed to frustration?
Assess your stamina. Do you feel like you’re running out of steam? Th at you’ve hit a brick wall?
Listen to your body. Do you suddenly have heartburn? A headache? What about back pain, dizziness, or a racing pulse?
Other symptoms are more subtle. Some people fall into negative thought patterns: Minor issues seem like major setbacks. Th eir view of people and situations loses nuance and becomes black-or-white, all-or-nothing. Other people become perfectionist task masters who hold the bar unrealistically high and overreact to mistakes, both theirs and others’.
Another way to identify your individual stress response is to refl ect on how you feel and act when you are deeply relaxed. “What are you like when you have less stress in your life or when you are on vacation?” asks Baim. “Do you still get headaches?”
MANAGING STRESS AND COUNTERACTING ITS EFFECTS
When you’ve learned to recognize when your stress level is getting too high, you can take steps to control it before it takes control of you. If you’ve been working furiously on a project or problem and one or more of your usual stress-response symptoms occurs, step away from your work. Engage in an activity that calms you, such as yoga, knitting, or going for a walk. Visiting an art museum counts; visiting a Web site does not. Similarly, watching TV is out. But looking intently and meditatively at a painting in your home or offi ce may be an eff ective way for you to dial down the stress.
Benson and Baim especially recommend meditation to activate what they call the relaxation response. All you need are a quiet place and 10 to 20 minutes during which you repeat a word, sound, phrase, or gesture. When everyday thoughts intrude, as they inevitably will, calmly disregard them and refocus on the repetitive activity.
Th e relaxation response is elicited by breaking the train of everyday thought. It counteracts the fi ght-or-fl ight response, decreasing metabolism, slowing heart rate and breathing, and lowering blood pressure. In fact, Benson’s most recent research shows that eliciting the relaxation response can bring about physiological changes that off set the harmful eff ects of stress. (To learn more about the relaxation response, go to the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine Web site at www.mbmi.org.)
Given the costs to employers when their employees are overdosing on stress, Benson suggests that “managers should fi nd or create a space where people can go to
4 HARVARD MANAGEMENT UPDATE | APRIL 2009
CHRONIC STRESS: SYMPTOMS AND COSTS
Chronic stress affl icts people from many walks of life, but
the high-speed, high-pressure lives many businesspeople
lead make them especially vulnerable to it. Left unchecked,
it can give rise to:
Self-destructive behaviors such as chain smoking, compul-
sive eating, or alcohol abuse.
Intense emotions. You may cry, feel powerless or depressed,
or become disproportionately angry.
Spiritual malaise such as apathy, a sense of emptiness, or a
loss of direction.
Relationship troubles. You may feel isolated from others or
resentful or intolerant of them. You may argue with your
spouse or partner, snap at your kids, or fi nd yourself unchar-
acteristically giving in to road rage.
The physiological changes activated by chronic stress can
have serious effects. When we suffer from chronic stress,
our adrenal glands continually release cortisol, also known
as the stress hormone. This cortisol fl ood, over time, weak-
ens the immune system. It can also trigger weight gain,
especially in the midsection, where excess weight is par-
ticularly dangerous because it raises a person’s risk for dia-
betes, heart disease, and certain cancers.
To learn how to use stress to your advantage, see:
“Are You Working Too Hard? A Conversation with Mind/Body
Researcher Herbert Benson”
(Harvard Business Review article) November 2005 • #R0511B
To learn more about the relaxation response, go to the
Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine Web site:
Managing Stress continued