Eustress and Dystress

Last week, I talked a bit about how making yourself stressed isn’t going to help at all, and that’s  a pretty common sentiment, but I thought I’d get a little deeper into it, because this is something that’s near and dear to me.

In 200n, I finished high school, and having decided that Biology was not my cup of tea, took year 12 Psychology instead (I don’t know what the year name where you’re from is, but here that’s the last year of high school before university). Most of it was Scroop tests and Pavlov, but there was one class and concept that I found particularly interesting.

There is a graph, one of many like it. It’s a bell curve graph, though not necessarily a normal distribution. The X-axis is labeled ‘Stress’, and the Y-axis is labeled ‘Productivity’ (in my mind, though the Y-axis could also be ‘functionality’, ‘effectiveness’, or something along those lines).

The basic idea is that there are two different kinds of stress. The first is Eustress, and it’s measured from the 0-point of the X-axis right up until the peak of the graph. This is ‘good’ stress – it’s stress that encourages you to do things. Too little stress, and you feel no imperative to do anything, no pressure. The deadline is too far away to worry about, or those days when you simply have nothing that needs doing, so nothing gets done (which is definitely not a bad thing – remember, we’re measuring productivity, not worth as a human being). As you then increase stress, the amount of productivity goes up. That makes sense, right? You do more work as the deadline approaches, you feel the house is starting to get too dirty so you feel compelled to clean it, you want to get better at a skill to accomplish a certain goal (arbitrary or with some reward attached), and so you accomplish things to work towards a positive result, or avoiding a negative one. You eventually reach a peak where you have enough pressure to motivate you and you’re at maximum productivity.

But here comes the PSA. That graph doesn’t continue ever upwards. After a certain point of stress, your productivity starts to come down. This is when you have so much to do that you freeze, unable to do any of it. It’s when you have too much adrenaline stress to focus, and too much to think about to concentrate on doing any one thing properly. At this point, beating yourself up for not doing things is never going to motivate you to do them, because you’ve already passed the point where adding more stress makes you more productive. In fact, beating yourself up is doing the exact opposite of helping. It’s actually physically making it harder for you to do whatever it is you’re trying to do.

So remember – if you’re too relaxed, you’ll remove your imperative to do things. But expecting yourself to do too much can stall your progress just as much as not expecting enough. You’ll know when you’re doing too much, so be sure to listen.

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