Home > Acting and Performance, Leadership, Public Speaking, Social Psychology, Stress and Pressure > How Pressure and Stress Are Affecting Your Performance

How Pressure and Stress Are Affecting Your Performance

The Candle Problem

The Candle Problem

Some years ago, a Princeton psychologist named Sam Glucksberg brought a group of test subjects into a room. In the room was a table positioned against a wall. On the table was a book of matches, a box of thumbtacks, and a candle. “Your job,” Glucksberg told his subjects, “is to attach the candle to the wall in such a way that when it’s lit, the wax will not drip onto the table. I will be timing you, and I will use your results to establish averages and benchmarks.”

Some time later, he brought another group of subjects into the room. He showed them an identical set-up: table, matches, box of thumbtacks, and candle. He gave them the identical instructions, but added a twist: “I will be timing you, and you will be rewarded with money based on your times. If you finish in the top 25% of all times, you will receive X dollars. If you’re the fastest of all times, we will give you double that amount.”

All of Glucksberg’s groups were timed against one another. And what do you think happened as a result?

The groups who received the money as a reward were, on average, three-and-a-half minutes slower at coming up with the right answer. How could this happen?

Pressure and Choking

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

My fascination on this subject began when I wrote an entry on Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article, “The Art of Failure,” in which he talks about the difference between “choking” and “panicking.” Gladwell cites research from Dr. Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia, talking about how the brain has two distinct, physically separated learning centers that record information in different ways. “Explicit learning” is learning that happens by conscious attention to lots of details, like learning how to spell certain words. “Implicit learning” is a largely subconscious process that’s trained through repetition, like learning to play the piano.

The implicit learning centers are far more capable of nuance and “touch” than the explicit learning centers, and so any activities that are performance-related – acting, playing tennis, playing music – are best handled by implicit processes. Gladwell notes that there is a certain specific type of performance failure, “choking,” that happens under high pressure situations. Choking is a stress reaction wherein the explicit parts of the brain take over implicit processes, and the performer/athlete/speaker becomes self-conscious and over-thinks their actions. Because the explicit, conscious centers of the brain work much more slowly than the implicit, subconscious centers, the performance will start to fall apart. The performer is “in his head.”

So, from this, we understand that certain advanced processes of the brain – processes that are mostly subconscious – will tend to shut down under stress. We know from Gladwell that implicitly-learned motor skills like tennis serves are vulnerable to this phenomenon. This makes sense in the scope of human evolution: thousands of years ago, acute stress usually represented a life-threatening situation. At that moment, you probably did not care a great deal about nuance. You just wanted to be as alert and reactive as possible.

But Gladwell’s article opens the door to more questions. Does this stress reaction affect us in other ways besides making us over-think what we’re doing? Also, what constitutes a stressful situation, and does that definition ever change?

Pressure and Problem-solving

Daniel Pink

Daniel Pink

Daniel Pink is a former White House staffer, and author of the phenomenally popular business book, Drive: The Suprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In it, he asserts that “extrinsic motivators” like rewarding with money do not motivate employees in the way we think they do. To illustrate this, he cites Sam Glucksberg’s study based on a famous cognitive problem called The Candle Problem.

The Candle Problem is a famous test wherein a subject sees a candle, a book of matches and a box of thumbtacks sitting on a table, and told to fix the candle to the wall in such a way that the candle will not drip wax on the table below it. The correct solution is to empty the box of thumbtacks, tack the empty box itself to the wall, and use that box as a platform to hold the candle. Arriving at the right solution requires enough creative problem solving to overcome a tendency called “functional fixedness”: the tendency to see the thumbtack box only as a container for thumbtacks simply because that’s how it was presented to the subject.

Candle Problem, Solved

Candle Problem, Solved

As we mentioned, Glucksberg gave this old problem a new twist by offering a financial incentive to complete the task faster than the average. Glucksberg discovered to his amazement that the teams with the financial incentive took significantly longer than the group with no incentive at all. In this case, the incentive did the exact opposite of what it was supposed to do: instead of sharpening creative thinking, the incentive dulled it.

Extrinsic motivators like cash rewards focus our mind, but also narrow it. When we want to win an incentive, that narrow focus helps us accomplish certain straightforward tasks very efficiently. But this same tunnel-vision cuts out most of our high-level problem-solving skills.

Intrinsic MotivationThese extrinsic motivators are another form of pressure. The moment a person decides to change their behavior based on a stick-and-carrot, he presses himself unusually hard to achieve his goal. The outcome, which was of lesser consequence before the incentives were introduced, is now a bigger deal. When the subjects push themselves towards a target, they trade their creative problem-solving abilities for mechanical efficiency.

So now we have seen pressure situation rob us of two sets of higher processes, performance abilities and creative problem solving. It’s no coincidence that both these processes are affiliated largely with the subconscious mind. Pressure seems to focus our conscious mind at the expense of subconscious processes.

Pressure and Emotional Receptivity

The list of subconscious processes dulled under pressure does not stop here. The emotive processes in the brain are also heavily subconscious. Emotional responses are also affected by acute pressure. I have some good anecdotal evidence to this effect from my friends in the acting community. Stage acting is an interesting and unique performance process. The actor must not only perform using implicit learning the way a sports player would, but must also be emotionally vulnerable to his or her scene partner. They do this by suspending disbelief, allowing themselves to partially go through the same emotions as someone in their character’s situation.

From those actors whom I’ve spoken to, most all report that it’s much easier for them to access their emotions freely – to “get into” the scene – when they do not feel themselves in an especially high-pressure performance situation. For example, An actor might feel pressure if they know that a certain family member will be in the audience that night. Or perhaps, if they know a certain critic will be watching. Anything that makes one particular performance “a big deal” will also make it potentially harder for actors to experience honest emotional reactions in the moment.

So what is it about certain situations that make us react in this way? Why is it that some of us may feel this reaction in some situations, like giving a speech, but not in other situations, like meeting a deadline? Also, are we doomed to feel that knot in our stomach every single time we’re about to give a speech, or will it someday go away?


Areas of the brainWhen you perceive distress – pressure or stress in excess of what you believe you can handle – your brain reacts by putting your body into a defensive mode. The hypothalamus, located at the base of the brain, sends signals for your body’s endocrine system to release certain hormones. The fight-or-flight hormone we’re most familiar with is adrenaline*. Adrenaline elevates our heart-rate and focuses our alertness.

But along with adrenaline, the body releases a second hormone called cortisol. Cortisol serves a number of functions, one of which is to shut down those systems that are nonessential. Cortisol shuts down the immune system, which is why those people under prolonged periods of stress are more likely to catch colds and the flu. It also shuts down the sexual response system, which is why chronic stress has been related to sexual dysfunction. Cortisol is the culprit that shuts down all the creative, emotional, implicit, and high-functioning processes in the brain. It turns us all – just as evolution would have it – into explicit, inartistic executors. Danger. Run. Now.

Even though the body releases both adrenaline and cortisol as a reaction to stress, it releases them based on two separate triggering mechanisms, and one is not as desirable as the other. Adrenaline speeds the heart, increases the blood pressure, and thereby delivers more oxygen and sugar to the brain and muscles. The body releases it when it’s gearing up for anything that requires effort, from parachute jumping to math tests.

AdrenalineCortisol, however, is different. It is released into the body only when the brain perceives distress, – that is, a situation that’s out of control, or beyond one’s ability to cope. Cortisol, not adrenaline, causes that pit-of-your-stomach anxious feeling when you know you’re in trouble. Though it serves to concentrate brain function on the here-and-now, its presence is negatively correlated with peak performance. If adrenaline is the “here we go” trigger, cortisol is the “uh-oh” trigger.

Dr. Richard Dienstbier, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, studies the effects of repeated stresses on animals and humans. According to his research, peak performance at demanding tasks, as well as long-term emotional stability, correlate with four distinct qualities of the body’s stress response:

  1. Adrenal endurance – the tendency to resist total depletion of adrenaline, which otherwise results in exhaustion
  2. Adrenal responsiveness – Low adrenal base rates, but a fast and strong adrenal response to stress, followed by a quick decline once the stress has passed.
  3. Increased receptivity to the effects of adrenaline – attuned beta-receptor responsiveness. This is the opposite of the effect caused by “beta-blockers” in heart patients, where you’d want to minimize the effects of adrenaline on weak hearts.
  4. Cortisol suppression – During times of stress, cortisol release is not triggered, and therefore does not climb above base levels.

Poor task performance is correlated to the opposite stress reaction: high base levels of stress hormones already in the system, quickly depleted adrenaline reserves, and a large and long-lasting release of cortisol into the bloodstream.

There are plenty of personality and genetic factors that effect stress hormone base rates and stress release rates, but Dienstbier’s research reveals a very interesting finding. When ordinary, untrained subjects are suddenly exposed to acute stress, their bodies panic and dump lots of stress hormones into the bloodstream. This tends to bring about only mediocre performance.

However, when subjects are exposed to similar stressors over and over, with non-stressed recovery periods, the body starts to respond differently. It uses less cortisol, and uses up adrenaline reserves less rapidly. In short, the body starts to resemble the ideal response outlined in the four points above, and the subject’s performance improves as a result.

Cortisol and StressThese conditioning results seem to make sense. The first time you encounter a stress situation – like, say, moving to a new house – your primitive brain knows 1) that it has to gear up for something (adrenaline), and 2) that it has never coped with anything like this before, and that the situation might be cause for dread (cortisol). But if someone moves frequently, the primitive brain adapts to the stressor. While the event is still stressful, the brain understands more clearly how to cope with the process. Less cortisol is required. Also, the adrenal responses are more “in-shape”, and less likely to deplete quickly.

Conventional wisdom in psychology used to believe that stress responses were 100% negative, and people should work to expel stress from their lives. But when we understand stress at a more granular level, we see that it might only be certain types of stress reactions that are negative. A certain amount of stress, on a limited and intermittent basis, might be necessary to keep our responses in shape. Dienstbier’s research supports the idea of “toughening up,” and gives a physiological definition for what it means to be tough. Toughness, we now see, has mostly to do with how our bodies physically respond to stress. What’s more, that response can be conditioned and improved.

Optimizing Our Performance

All these findings taken together suggest that there are ways we can actively improve our performance.

1)  Expose yourself to repeated, productive stressors just beyond your comfort zone, with non-stressed recovery periods

Dienstbier’s article suggests that toughening in one area of stress will carry over into other areas. He offers aerobic exercise as an example of a productive stress activity that can help condition the body’s stress responses. When those responses become conditioned, they will affect the body’s response to many different kinds of stressors.

I’ve seen anecdotal evidence of conditioning carry-over from one type of stressor to another. For about ten years, I coached high school-aged actors in competitive speaking events. These students would compete at weekly tournaments, and undergo coaching sessions once or twice a week. This activity is a good example of intermittent exposure to a major stressor with non-stressed recovery.

Many students who began as freshmen with fears about public speaking or introverted personalities have credited this activity with increasing their confidence. Many stated they felt more confident not only about public speaking, but about themselves and their general abilities. I can also testify that these same students exhibited much more emotional maturity by the time they were seniors, though whether that was from the activity or from their natural development I cannot say. After seeing these results in total, however, I am convinced that stress conditioning in one area – like exercise or confidence-building activities – leads to better results in other performance-related areas.

2) Separate creative and complex processes from performance pressures

David Brooks

David Brooks

David Brooks, a commentator for the New York Times and a respected social science voice, appeared on the Charlie Rose Show in 2010 and commented on creative decision-making. He said that while straight-forward decisions are best left to traditional pros and cons, the best way to make a creative or cognitively complex decision is to “distract yourself with something else, and then come back to the problem.” Creativity and complex decisions are the realm of the subconscious mind. “While we have been distracted,” Brooks tells us, “your unconscious [mind] has been filtering it all, and will come to the right decision.”

My wife is in the creative industry, and she tells me that she can see a difference in the caliber of creative work that has a five-week deadline as opposed to a one-week deadline. This is not due to four additional weeks worth of conscious attention, because in that five-week span, creative artists are working on many different projects for other clients. The only impressive difference between the five-week work and the one-week work is that with the former, the creatives have been given time for their unconscious minds to ruminate on the problem.

Rather than introducing incentives, pressures or deadlines, we need a non-stressed, pleasantly distracted environment to give our subconscious minds room to work on more complex and creative problems. Therefore, when one receives a project, it’s best to think about it immediately and deeply, so as to give the subconscious mind time to ruminate before deadlines come due.

If you are a manager of people whose job it is to think creatively, you need to set an environment conducive to that type of thinking. Daniel Pink, discussed earlier, talks about the intrinsic motivators that produce better creative results than simple, extrinsic motivators like money or promotion.

3) Manage your own expectations

Conventional wisdom tells us that high expectations yield high results, and certainly we want our work to be excellent. There’s an old adage, however, which tells us that the perfect may be the enemy of the good.



Peter Bregman is a management consultant and blogger for the Harvard Business Review. He wrote a blog article recently on his experiences preparing to address the TED audience in Flint, Michigan. He parceled out weeks of time to work on his speech, but due to the high stakes involved he kept throwing out his drafts and starting over. Facing a deadline a few days away, he still had no material to work with. This is what he says happened next:

One morning, a few days before the speech, I found a note on my computer, left by Eleanor. She told me the speech might not end up being that great. But in the big picture, it wouldn’t make a huge difference. Surely it would be good. And if not that, then at least OK. Which, ultimately, would be just fine. Once I read that, something shifted in me. I stopped trying so hard. I stopped trying to be funny, smart, clever, or creative. I stopped trying to talk about the three most important things. I stopped trying to make this my best talk ever. Instead, I set a goal I knew I could achieve: talk about one thing — not necessarily the thing, just something that was meaningful to me — and talk about it simply and passionately.

We must set our expectations so that they do not tie us up in knots. Most of the pressure that inhibits us is self-pressure, and if we think about it, only a small fraction of that self-pressure is justified in order to motivate the results we want. The rest just gets in our way. Which brings me to:

4) Ease up on the melodrama and the over-analyzing

Melodramatic thinking and mental chatter form a feedback loop with stress triggers. If you’re psyched out about something, your body will release stress hormones. When you feel the effect of the stress hormones, you have a constant, nagging reminder that you don’t feel right, which further psyches you out. These types of loops, over the long term, correlate with neurotic and depressive tendencies.

Mental ChatterToughening-up only happens when the body has periods of non-stress in which to recover. During those periods, the primitive brain re-appraises situations, and moderates its future reactions. If you – like me – are susceptible to a lot of mental chatter and melodramatic thinking, your body will receive a constant stream of stress hormones, and experience a long-term, weakened state as a result.

Dr. Mark Leary, a social psychologist from Duke University, talks about the importance of quieting anxious self-chatter in his book, The Curse of the Self:

Contrary to how it may seem, most of people’s inner self-talk does not help them to anticipate problems, cope with difficulties, or improve the quality of their lives. True, the chatter deals mostly with problems of past and future, but rarely does this kind of rumination actually help people improve their lives. Think of all the times you have replayed upsetting past events in your head – a conflict with another person, a humiliating experience, a stupid mistake, a traumatic event. In how many of those times did rehashing the experience actually help you to understand or cope with it? And, in those rare cases where self-reflection was actually helpful, or did you analyze and agonize more than necessary.

5) Now that you’ve learned all these details, forget them

It’s a little dangerous to know exactly what goes on in our bodies when we get nervous, because it might make us hyper self-conscious about it. Knowing what’s causing that sensation in the pit of our stomach tends to increase our risk of over-analyzing it as it’s happening, or of psyching us out that it’s happening at all.

This information is helpful only because it demonstrates that our responses can be trained over time, and our confidence, performance level and quality of life will improve as a result. Now that you know about stress hormones and the subconscious processes of the mind, forget it all and never think of it again.

Instead, train yourself up with hard challenges and periods of non-stress. And figure out which situations and motivators will give you the best, most creative results.

* A note to medical practitioners: I use the word “adrenaline” in this context for simplicity and recognition. Wherever I mention “adrenaline” in talking about the SNS response, I am referring to all the peripheral catecholamines, particularly epinephrine and norepinephrine.

[Editor’s Note: 4/22/11 – This article has just been recognized by the editors of WordPress.com as one of their “Freshly Pressed” front page blog entries. This is the third such recognition for People-triggers. Thank you to the folks at WordPress, and to you reading this. I appreciate you very much.]

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  1. April 22, 2011 at 9:26 AM

    “Toughening-up only happens when the body has periods of non-stress in which to recover.”

    …so THAT is the problem! I think society has collectively felt so much stress for so long, we’re not able to recover and thus deal more effectively with the consequences of stress.

    Here’s to non-stressful days ahead — if only!

  2. April 22, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    i was a psych major, but still struggle with stress…who doesn’t! very informative. thanks!

  3. April 22, 2011 at 9:47 AM

    #4. is what I need to practice DAILY!! lol

  4. beckyspringer
    April 22, 2011 at 9:49 AM

    Love #4. I over-analyze EVERYTHING! At least i know i’m not alone!

  5. April 22, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    What an article, and what a profound statement about the fragility of our species. Surely thinking is what we do best, though doing is at least equally important. Seems to me that a true genius, rather than thinking about a prospective problem for too long, knows the right time to stop “thinking” and start “Doing”.
    Thanks for the knowledge

  6. differentdimensions
    April 22, 2011 at 10:42 AM

    Interesting article, now I can’t stop analyzing. I’m a Yoga teacher and this article gave me a scientific answer to how Yoga helps reduce stress. It’s such a simple explanation. Thanks!

  7. April 22, 2011 at 10:47 AM

    A little bit of stress is okay, like competitive stress. On the other side of distress, you have “eustres”… I think that’s what it is called. Great article by the way – very enjoyable.

    • April 22, 2011 at 11:26 AM

      Thank you! You’re right on about “eustress”, or motivating tension. I originally had a section in the middle of this article on eustress and distress, but it had to get cut because it felt long and dragged the pace down. Good point to make, though!

  8. elisajoy
    April 22, 2011 at 11:13 AM

    I really enjoyed reading this. So insightful. I can relate to being melodramatic and over-analysing…I think that will be the death of me. Really, really good post.

  9. April 22, 2011 at 11:21 AM

    Excellent post, a refreshing explanation on what goes on in our minds during times of pressure. I’m glad I came across this entry, since I have a speech to give next week!

  10. A Broom of Her Own
    April 22, 2011 at 11:57 AM

    I used to be the queen of analysis paralysis and the mental chatter/loop. In our society, we are addicted to our stressors; if you’re stressed then you must be successful. You have me wondering, “Who would I be if I didn’t have this stress?” Time for us all to toughen up to be more lighthearted and creative. Your post is really interesting and insightful. Thanks.

  11. April 22, 2011 at 12:08 PM

    Thank you for the topic I will be sharing it with my girlfriend!


  12. April 22, 2011 at 12:15 PM

    Okay, I got half way through this and it was amazing. I’ll have to come back to read the rest after I’ve had some caffeine.


    • April 22, 2011 at 12:24 PM

      Thanks for hanging in there! It’s a dense one, I know. We’ll be here when you get back!

  13. Shels
    April 22, 2011 at 12:35 PM

    Another stellar article, Scott. I love the example of coaching high school kids. So many of them are afraid of failure that they never take chances. Then when the “big event” comes up, they slip right into the negative stress mode you detail. The article reinforces my teaching philosophy in my theatre classes – thanks! I’ve tagged my daughter on this one…hopefully to help her understand more clearly why I push her to practice under all kinds of circumstances when she has a performance coming up. This also speaks to our “teach to the test” mode of public education. Creativity and thinking outside the box have few rewards right now, and that *has* to change. We need to create an environment where kids feel safe to make mistakes and learn from them. It’s easier to do in my theatre classroom than it is in my science classroom. I’ve got to work on that!

    I, too, am a “Bulldog” (as I call it), chewing on all the negative things I’ve experienced. I have a really hard time quieting the monkey mind. Gotta get that one under control…

    • April 22, 2011 at 1:08 PM

      Thank you, Shelly! I totally appreciate the detailed response! I actually had our Winter Wonderland conversation in mind when I was writing this. I was blown away when I read the published proof that nervous responses train up like muscles, and it turns out this information has been around for twenty years! It makes such a big difference in how we would teach kids and raise them. It should be a part of the public consciousness, but it’s not because you have to sift through very dense and painful journal publications to find it. If you think it’s dense in this form, you should have seen what I had to read through for the background!

      I’m so glad this is useful to you as a teacher and a parent! I was hoping it would be. See you at WWW 2012!!

      • Shels
        April 22, 2011 at 3:09 PM

        Oooh! Oooh!!! And stage combat training! Those danged SPRs! If that’s not an example of the explicit learning trying to take over, I don’t know what is (I had crazy rough R&D renewal at WWW this year)! Just reinforces my plan to take SPRs as often as I can…if I test before I *have* to test, the pressure will be one followed by a “nonstressed recovery period.” Even if I fail, I have more time to retest, and by testing again, I experience the ‘toughening effect.’ Anyone who takes an SPT needs to know about renewing so they can prepare for it, but I don’t remember *anyone* talking about SPRs when I attended the ACW last summer! Except maybe to say that it had to be done before 3 years had passed.

        Thanks for giving my brain something to chew on today!

  14. April 22, 2011 at 12:37 PM

    Thanks for posting – good stuff. I’ve stumbled upon a few of these ideas on my own in teaching and thinking about music performance, but it’s great to see the science behind it and everything in one place. Gladwell is also a favorite – especially Outliers.

  15. April 22, 2011 at 1:21 PM

    wow, this is fantastic. I would love to quote you, if I may, in my own blog. As an actor (and human) myself this was extremely interesting and helpful. Thanks ;)

    • April 22, 2011 at 1:28 PM

      Lol, yes, by all means! I’m glad you found it useful!

  16. April 22, 2011 at 1:26 PM

    This was really interesting, I feel a little bit closer to hacking my brain now =)

  17. April 22, 2011 at 1:38 PM

    Found this article very insightful. Actually, the moment I started reading about implicit and explicit learning, I immediately was thought back to a high school piano recital. I had to memorize a song – and I knew it really well. But once I started thinking about what notes I needed to play – explicit thinking – the pressure got to me and I couldn’t remember which notes to play next.

    I’ve never been able to communicate that experience in a way where it entirely made sense. Unfortunately, that piano recital was not the only time I over thought what I was doing and then failed at something. Thanks for this article! It’s great to understand the reasoning behind this.

  18. April 22, 2011 at 1:50 PM

    Interesting read…thanks

  19. April 22, 2011 at 2:42 PM

    True True… I know it can be hard… and i agree with everybody pretty much!

  20. April 22, 2011 at 5:03 PM

    Hmmm. Now I know why I don’t function well in certain stressful situations, but actually become more focused in others.

  21. April 22, 2011 at 5:05 PM

    This is a very interesting, imformative, well-researched, and well planned out post.

  22. April 22, 2011 at 5:26 PM

    What a great post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and it gave me a lot to think about. I think as our society becomes more immersed in technology and jobs are increasing centered around computers, we are living in our heads more and more. Without the phyical and social outlets that otheer jobs offer, I think people working in technology sectors are becoming increasingly stressed out. In order to effectively manage teams, we need to be able to factor these stress reactions into our coaching and mentoring skills.

  23. April 22, 2011 at 5:31 PM

    That is really useful, clear, informative and helpful, thanks. Lack of recovery time between stressful has been a huge issue for me and made me ill, so now I am having to take a huge dose of it! It’s good to know there are ways to try and avoid it happening again :)

  24. offalf
    April 22, 2011 at 5:40 PM

    Thanks for such an interesting and informative article. These knowledge comes quit handy in daily life.

  25. April 22, 2011 at 6:05 PM

    Great post. I think the notion of building in recovery time is huge — yet our current industrial model (alloutputallthetime!) does not allow for it, nor does peer pressure to be on 24/7 and responding.

    I recently blogged about the persistent dilemma, the choice (which it can be) between being creative and productive. Without those quiet(er) moments – and your wife is so right about this — we get nowhere creatively.

    I love writing books (non-fiction) precisely because they allow me the room and time to reflect and ruminate. That now feels like the ultimate (intellectual) luxury…but we need it to come up with anything worthwhile.


  26. April 22, 2011 at 9:07 PM

    I’m an athelte and all I can say is wow. A lot of my teammates go through what was spoken about here and it’s always nice to be well informed.

  27. April 22, 2011 at 9:22 PM

    Fundamentally a great post. Excellent, sage advice for those too tired to hear themselves anymore. Including myself! Especially, one step at a time; just keep stepping.

  28. April 22, 2011 at 10:32 PM

    Nice post! I tend to have problems with number 4 though… Who doesn’t? ;)

  29. April 22, 2011 at 10:53 PM

    I found this article extremely interesting and full of good information. I always try to find a balance between my periods of stress and non-stress in order to keep myself healthy. Sometimes, it can be hard to do. If I know ahead of time I am going into a potentially stressful situation that may endure for a long period of time, it helps to acknowledge that this will be the case so that I may feel somewhat in control in knowing that “it won’t last forever.” In other words, I know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
    At other times, I distract myself during the project with music or background noise to remind me that the world is still going on around me and I’m not in a vaccum of pressure and stress. I use those same tools for creativity.
    And when I come under an attack of sudden pressure or stress, a state of total “caught me off guard” type of stress to where I feel initially out of control, I try to remind myself that the world has not actually changed, only my perception. I then tell myself that five minutes ago, before the stress inducer, is what I need to remember and focus on until the stress reduces or completely passes–when the world will seem “normal” to me again.
    I agree with the “conditioning” or “toughening-up” of ones self and their reactions when dealing with stress. It’s a bit like learning to just ride out the waves of life. There are ups AND downs. It can be overwhelming and frustrating at times to live like that for too long. We all want a calm and peaceful, steady and straight, smooth ride in life. But rarely is that the case. Learning to deal with those peaks and valleys is what helps us to sustain and find the ability to enjoy when things are going good. Living too much in a state of waiting for the other shoe to fall is not good.

  30. April 22, 2011 at 10:56 PM

    I feel like I was just back in high school science class. Bravo, teacher! So THAT’S why I cannot sleep more than three hours unassisted! lol Not to mention when mean people try to take-over your life and raise blood pressures, right?
    I’m sleepy…

  31. April 22, 2011 at 11:27 PM

    Fantastic post! Well researched, accurate and informative.

  32. April 23, 2011 at 12:21 AM

    I really like how thorough your article is and that you approach it from a more scientific viewpoint. The idea is interesting that one can train the body to handle stress by using the steps you gave. It makes sense and helps to give a better step-by-step process on how people are able to adapt to stressors.

  33. April 23, 2011 at 12:39 AM

    Pressure makes me procrastinate too much. Or stress thrown in, makes…me want to fall asleep.

    I kid you not. I want to go to bed earlier and cocoon. :)

  34. April 23, 2011 at 12:41 AM

    To perform better, I do try to cycle often to de-stress. It drains away negative energy and replaces it with more positive energy after a ride and to deal with the stuff ahead in life.

  35. doodlescaboodles
    April 23, 2011 at 1:42 AM

    Thank you. It’s nice to know that I’m not losing my mind.

  36. April 23, 2011 at 2:06 AM

    I constantly fall victim to the cortisol i produce.haha. this post is just right to the point. i will try the measures you suggest. Thank you for sharing!

  37. jjamdesign
    April 23, 2011 at 2:46 AM

    As a graphic designer and a guitar player I have a lot of experience with these issues.
    I think most graphic designers recognize that the best ideas come in the car on the way home from work, or in the shower, or anyplace where we are *not thinking about the problem* so to speak.
    As far as the conditioning issue goes, I know I used to feel terrible every time I got up in front of people to play. But somehow over the years, it’s gotten a better. I both don’t panic as much and also perform better.
    This post, like all good teaching, has brought to light what we (creatives) already know. It’s really great to read so much confirmation in one place!

  38. April 23, 2011 at 3:38 AM

    we can try meditation?

  39. Summer
    April 23, 2011 at 4:00 AM

    i never knew any of this! it really helps with my stress!

  40. April 23, 2011 at 4:21 AM

    Excellent post, positive self talk is so important as you quoted at the end of #4. So many people stress themselves out with negative talk.

  41. April 23, 2011 at 4:52 AM

    it explains a lot of things!! great info, useful, will share it with my friends :)

  42. April 23, 2011 at 6:32 AM

    Thank you – wonderful article. I do those ‘toughening up’ exercises but only understood them from a simple point of view. Gratitude for the deeper insight!

  43. April 23, 2011 at 8:30 AM

    Great article. I am working on a work book for test taking strategies. Understanding one’s biology is the first step in getting a handle on stress!

  44. Generation 26
    April 23, 2011 at 9:17 AM

    Isn’t there more than one way to solve the candle problem? you could just move the table lol

  45. Alive aLwaYs
    April 23, 2011 at 9:28 AM

    Great blog, it answers questions I never dare ask, but don’t tell me to forget because when one learns such information it is very difficult to unlearn.

    It is indeed true that to move forward you have to leave the haunting past behind, but it is very difficult, the only way to get rid of that thought is by never trying it, or by winning at least once against it.

  46. April 23, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    Excellent post! It’s really amazing, what stress will do. In my own case, I tend to actively seek it out, because it sharpens me. But after a while, it tends to take a toll.

    Thanks for putting this out there. Very important stuff.

  47. thor27
    April 23, 2011 at 11:51 AM

    What me worry ? What’s the worst that can happen trauma and cardiac arrest ? That’s why they make food and wine and a brain to ignore the irritants and irritating people of the world. Stressed out tell em to stuff it and relax
    let them worry !!! I’ll drink some good wine and eat some good food and they
    the causes can take a short ride out of my cognizance and life.I make all the
    decisions not the the circumstance. Music a change of venue are all ways that I can determine my mentality I am the capitan of my fate and master of my soul!!!
    Good article !!!

  48. thor27
    April 23, 2011 at 11:54 AM

    Misspelled Irritant in the first comment sorry !!! Should I get stressed ??

  49. thor27
    April 23, 2011 at 12:24 PM

    I read freshly pressed almost daily
    Check out my blog sometime.
    “Whatcha need Got you covered in Northwest Houston”

  50. Joe
    April 23, 2011 at 12:35 PM

    That is really fascinating.

  51. April 23, 2011 at 1:27 PM

    Stress is usually part of the workplace for me. I don’t like being told what to do by customers and their complaing about everything.

  52. April 23, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    Really nice article, a lot of time, effort and research obviously went into this and it was a great read.

    Keep up the good work – and keep down the stress! = )


  53. runderdoggy
    April 23, 2011 at 5:20 PM

    This was one of the better posts I’ve read. And it was probably so good because you didn’t worry about making it perfect. Just curious–how long did it take to compile and compose this post?

  54. April 23, 2011 at 6:24 PM

    Packed with information, beautifully written, and interesting. Thanks for the important article about stress. We all have it, especially in this fast-paced world.

  55. April 23, 2011 at 6:38 PM

    I have heard over and over from college students that they perform better under pressure. Even though it is a pretty safe assumption to say that it is merely an excuse for their procrastination habits, I’ve noticed that they do, in fact, accomplish their given assignment. Though my colleagues don’t typically tell me much after I ask them about the quality of their rushed work, they seem to not mind or to quickly set it behind them.

    I’ve read all of the books by Malcolm Gladwell, and I agree with him on almost every view on his perception of human behavior.

    Thank you very much for posting this, I will be subscribing! Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!


  56. April 23, 2011 at 8:03 PM

    The post is amazing, your a good writing. I can’t believe what stress can do to you.

    PLease read my blog:)

  57. April 23, 2011 at 9:55 PM

    Learn a lot from this article! I always feel pressure. Thank your for your sharing!

  58. April 23, 2011 at 10:41 PM

    I learned a lot, Thanks!

  59. Roda
    April 24, 2011 at 5:10 AM

    Couldn’t finish the whole article…like you mentioned no need to know more than I need to for my own good.

  60. icanwritesomething
    April 24, 2011 at 9:18 AM

    very good post, thanks a lot !

  61. April 24, 2011 at 9:30 AM

    take life easy and keep stress away. Engage in some leisure activity like sports, music or whatever you like

  62. April 24, 2011 at 10:10 AM

    while straight-forward decisions are best left to traditional pros and cons, the best way to make a creative or cognitively complex decision is to “distract yourself with something else, and then come back to the problem.” Creativity and complex decisions are the realm of the subconscious mind. “While we have been distracted,” Brooks tells us, “your unconscious [mind] has been filtering it all, and will come to the right decision.”

  63. April 24, 2011 at 10:12 AM

    Fascinating article and such an interesting read. We all suffer from certain stresses in our life but some people don’t or can’t face up to them.

    Stress can be good in very small doses (keeps us on our toes) but generally it is a negative emotion that tests us all to our limits.

  64. April 24, 2011 at 12:14 PM

    Thank you for that good post!

    Greetings from İstanbul

  65. April 24, 2011 at 12:36 PM

    I think most of the stress comes from the pressure to buy and pay for stuff. Doesn’t leave you much time to relax. LOL

  66. April 24, 2011 at 1:15 PM

    I’m an outsider who has [successfully] assimilated. Thank you for the articulate explanation. As Shels commented “stellar article.” Very meaningful to a lot of folks I’m sure.

  67. April 24, 2011 at 1:37 PM

    Most enlightening article I’ve read in a long time! Thanks for sharing.

  68. April 24, 2011 at 4:03 PM
  69. April 24, 2011 at 5:26 PM

    What do you think the impact of this concept on standardized testing? How about competitions of any kind? I honestly believe that some people do better with a bit of stress. Adrenaline and all that.

    • April 25, 2011 at 11:23 AM

      This is a great question. Several people have been asking about testing, and it’s made me go back and flush out the ideas a little more.

      First of all, a little stress (and an adrenal reaction) correlates with good performance. I originally had a section on eustress and distress, which I cut for pacing reasons. But the general conclusion of the article is that good performance correlates with the effects of stress conditioning (i.e. “toughening”): strong adrenal reaction, good sensitivity to adrenaline, delayed adrenal depletion, and suppressed cortisol levels. Therefore we should condition ourselves to stress, rather than seek to eliminate all stress.

      So, what does this mean for standardized testing?

      The ideal reaction to a test of any kind involves enough investment to gear up for it (adrenaline), but not so much investment that the higher brain functions get cut off (cortisol). This research suggests that the best method for achieving this state involves many practice tests, administered in a similar atmosphere to the actual test, and demonstrating visible improvement from practice to practice. With SAT tests for example, performance improvements should correlate strongly to number of practice exams.

      Teachers will likely see this as yet another effort to teach to the test, and I respect that opinion, but that’s not the goal. The goal is to condition the subconscious parts of the brain to deal well with this particular stressor, and to remove stress as a negative performance factor. I would not worry about going the other direction, and trying to *induce* adrenaline – unless the student really has no care at all, the adrenaline will be there on its own. The biggest performance improvements should come from the test-taker’s mind not “locking up.”

      The second important step (which I didn’t think about until after I published the article) is to anticipate the brain locking-up and have an easy-to-remember default plan. For example, GMAT testers are taught heavily about deducing answers from eliminating the impossible ones. This happens to such an extent that many say the GMAT tests logical deduction way more than higher computational skills. I teach the same idea with public speakers: your brain will lock up, so make sure your message is down cold and very easy to remember. With practice, the students’ brains will lock-up less over time, because of the cortisol suppression effect. In the meantime, have a default plan to start solving the problem, even in the midst of the brain freeze.

      Those are my thoughts so far. Do you have more specific questions that might help me flush this out?

  70. April 24, 2011 at 7:32 PM

    Interesting Piece

  71. April 24, 2011 at 9:06 PM

    Insightful article. Since I’m going into the education field, I wondered the same thing that “the writer” commented. How do you feel kids react to due to the idea of a test being in the way of graduation. How detrimental are these effects on the students performance?

  72. April 24, 2011 at 10:25 PM

    Thanks for this post!

  73. April 24, 2011 at 10:34 PM

    I think that I’d move the table away from where I affixed the candle, myself…


  74. April 24, 2011 at 11:53 PM

    Stress is silent killer which engulfs you and you can not judge when you have become pray to this predator, you have written an excellent post and have provided exceptionally well content.

  75. April 25, 2011 at 1:23 AM

    I find this article very enlightening :) Thank you for sharing!

  76. gigi_xxxx
    April 25, 2011 at 2:52 AM

    …next time someone tells me to be more creative I will tell them to give me more time. Thanks, it really makes sense. And I can recognise myself in #1.

  77. April 25, 2011 at 3:38 AM

    Excellent post! It’s really amazing, what stress will do. In my own case, I tend to actively seek it out, because it sharpens me. But after a while, it tends to take a toll.

    Thanks for putting this out there. Very important stuff.

  78. April 25, 2011 at 4:42 AM


  79. April 25, 2011 at 6:53 AM

    I’ll be going happy-go-lucky then after reading this post.

    It’s worth a try, I think. ;)

  80. Solomon
    April 25, 2011 at 7:09 AM


  81. April 25, 2011 at 9:22 AM

    Excellent article. Very helpful. Thanks. I particularly appreciate the distinction between implicit and explicit learning – rings true for me, I think. :)

  82. Toni Marie
    April 25, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    Wow…I am leaving for the Biggest Competition of my life…this article is JUST WHAT I NEEDED TO READ!

  83. April 25, 2011 at 6:29 PM

    Malcolm Gladwell is a living nightmare.

    However, I still really liked the article.

  84. April 27, 2011 at 7:12 AM

    interesting,… i already watch daniel pink video on http://www.ted.com
    i agree with the opinion,.. even we need more research to manage the stess so it’s make us better

    hey,.. may be coffee can make this stress become great impuls
    please check our unique coffee blog

  85. May 5, 2011 at 3:55 PM

    Great article. Adrenaline will make you do some amazing things when you have no other options but to succeed in a task. I opened a dance studio, a gym, and bought a house last year I thought I was going to crack from the stress. I’m going to come back and read more thoroughly when I’m not working,lol.

  86. May 5, 2011 at 6:26 PM

    delightfully insightful post…read more on the biological basis for problem solving in relationships

  87. May 7, 2011 at 5:04 PM

    I have found out that Vitamin C is good for stress. I am drinking orange juice to find out if it works.

  88. michael frank
    May 8, 2011 at 9:20 PM

    Under high drive, the width of the cognitive map decreases. Refer to studies in 1960’s by Zajonc.

  89. May 19, 2011 at 9:10 AM

    I’M a STUDENT AND I have the bad habit to learn only before the exams —> i PASS

  90. December 3, 2012 at 4:54 PM

    What a good article help a lot if you are a student like myself

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