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How much stress do we need to perform?

How much stress do we need to perform? Can stress be our friend?

How much stress do we need to perform?

We feel stressed, we talk about being stressed, we take sick leave due to chronic stress – stress, it seems, is the enemy of good work. It’s tempting to stay in our comfort zone and avoid pressure. But if we never push our limits, then we don’t reach our potential. Can stress be our friend, too? It seems obvious that the answer is yes. We’ve all got great work done under the pressure of a looming deadline. The best solution is to learn to push ourselves by applying the right amount of stress. But how do we know what the right amount is?

Is there a formula we can use to work it out? Will it be the same for all of us? When people are under-stimulated, tired or bored, they are not performing at their peak. Leaders could raise the challenge by lifting expectations, tightening deadlines, or asking what would make the project more interesting. However, once we discover our limits, it’s tempting to drop back into our comfort zone and not to get too stressed.

On the other hand, when we experience too much input, there can be a sudden drop-off in performance– we experience black-and-white thinking, we are in distress, we are not organised, we are less connected to others, and we experience feelings of constant low-level panic and guilt. Chronic stress narrows your focus of attention, damages your brain and reduces your immune functions, and it’s important to avoid this as a permanent state.

The best solution is to learn to push ourselves, recognise when we have gone too far, and recover. When our amygdala is over-aroused, we want to get out of that state straightaway. What we need is a bit of a stretch to get to our peak performance.

The 30-second circuit breaker

A great strategy for managing too much stress is the 30-second circuit breaker. It is called ‘Breathe – Label – Re-appraise’.


The first step is to breathe. Inhale and exhale slowly. This simple action provides two benefits. First, it’s an interruption. It creates a pause before our response. Second, it starts a physiological process that changes how we feel. Breathing deeply sends oxygen to the prefrontal cortex, which in turn helps regulate our fight-flight-freeze response.


After you breathe, label the emotion. Whether angry, frustrated or annoyed, label it. You can say something like: ‘I’m feeling overwhelmed’ or ‘I feel hurt and upset’.

Labelling serves two purposes. First, it switches on our prefrontal cortex, engaging rational thoughts rather than relying on emotions. Second, it allows us to externalise. We can step back from our feelings and assess them more objectively. It takes us from being at the mercy of our stress to being in control.


Finally, re-appraise by asking yourself some questions:

  • What can I learn from this?
  • What can I be grateful for?
  • How can I put this into perspective?
  • In five years’ time, will this matter?

Switching negative thoughts to positive ones puts you back in control. In this state, you are better able to manage the amount of stress you have and use it as a positive force for productivity.

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