I talk about stress with my clients almost every day. Did you know that there are two kinds of stress; good stress and the not-so-good stress that is often called distress? Psychologists call the good stress eustress. The prefix eu- in Greek means well or good, as in euphoria (good feelings). Eustress arises when we engage in activities or events that are challenging to our bodies or minds, but are still considered positive; like running, going on a rollercoaster, or watching a scary movie with a friend or loved one. While eustress feels good, it is still actually quite taxing on our bodies.
We also know that a certain amount of eustress is a good thing in certain circumstances, especially when we are about to undertake a complex important task. We usually call it nervousness, as when we have to get up and give a speech, sit for an exam, give a presentation at work or at university, go for a job interview or when a musician is performing publicly. This eustress keeps us on our toes, gives us that special degree of focus and actually improves performance. However, if eustress increases too much, it becomes old fashioned stress, the not-so-good kind.
There is actually a special relationship between the level of stress and the effectiveness of performance. It is called a Yerkes–Dodson curve and I have included an illustration of one here. It is in the shape of an up-side-down U.
You can see that very low and very high levels of stress indicate the poorest performance, while at the middle of the curve, where there is a reasonable amount of eustress, performance is at its peak. Moreover, this tipping point at the middle of the curve is where eustress changes into distress; where performance begins to drop away.
This distress reduces our concentration on the task and we begin to focus on our feelings and uncomfortable physical sensations. This is the difference between what psychologists call task orientation vs self orientation, where task orientation is when I focus on the job at hand, and self orientation is when I focus on my feelings of incompetence, embarrassment or my dry mouth or the tight sensation in my chest. If you find yourself nervous before an important task, do your best to stay focused on the task rather than on your feelings and bodily sensations. This way, you can utilise all that eustress to assist you in executing your task effectively and successfully. Tell yourself, “I’ll worry about the feelings and sensations later, but for now, I’m focused on the task.”
It takes practice, but it works.