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What Is The Stress Bell Curve and How Does it Correlate to Stress and Performance?

Also known as the inverted-U model of arousal and performance, the Yerkes Dodson law posits that your level of performance correlates to your stress level, with optimal performance achieved at an intermediate level of stress.

So, how does this law work in real life, and what is the psychology behind it? Let's take a closer look at the Yerkes-Dodson law and its impact on stress management, performance, and mental health.

On this page:

What is the Psychology Behind the Yerkes Dodson Law?

Explaining Stress Arousal Levels

Work Stress

Factors That Can Affect Performance

Finding Your Performance Sweet Spot For Task Completion

Yerkes Dodson Law and Stress Management

What is the Psychology Behind the Yerkes Dodson Law?

Psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson formulated their theory in 1908 (despite its name, the Yerkes Dodson law is a concept rather than an actual law) after performing experiments on mice. In this experiment, they applied mild electric shocks to the mice and found that they were able to learn simple tasks more quickly with the electric shock.

However, as Yerkes and Dodson increased the intensity of the electric shocks, they discovered that the mice became more focused on avoiding the shock, so that their performance level dropped.

Based on these behaviors, the psychologists hypothesized that the ideal level of mental arousal was necessary to reach peak performance. Performance increases with a certain level of arousal, while performance decreases when the arousal level becomes too high. In between these two is the optimal level of arousal, which is the peak level for task performance.

Explaining Stress Arousal Levels

There are three levels of physiological or mental arousal: low arousal, optimal arousal, and high arousal.

Low arousal is not an ideal level for task performance. Tasks require a certain amount of stress to create motivation and facilitate concentration. Yerkes and Dodson theorized that in an extremely low pressure environment, there is no motivation to perform.

Optimal arousal is the optimal level of stress to facilitate performance. Stress begins to increase motivation, and people perform even more challenging tasks more successfully. Enough to motivate, heartrate increases, excitement builds, and the individual feels that there are stakes. Habit formation is at an optimal level here as well.

High arousal takes things too far. Stress becomes a distraction; there is muscle tension and a loss of focus. According to Yerkes Dodson law, an individual can't reach peak potential when at this level of arousal, as stress kicks your brain into a fight, flight, or freeze response. In the case of different tasks in a work setting, it will most likely be frozen. Difficult tasks may seem impossible, and these high levels of stress may even impact your ability to work at your typical skill level.

Work Stress

Stress management is important in work life, according to Yerkes Dodson law. Not only does it protect your mental health, but it can also allow you to reach higher levels of performance. For example, think about when you took a test in high school or college. Your professor encourages you to study up to a point, but then tells you to take a break before the actual test. Get a good night's sleep and focus on your physical health. Going into the testing room with a combination of confidence and rest is ideal for performance.

Those with knowledge of managerial psychology understand that Yerkes Dodson law shows that a moderate amount of work stress protects well being as well as encourages an optimum level of performance in the workplace.

Factors That Can Affect Performance

There are different factors that can affect your ability to perform under pressure. If you understand these and how they relate to you, you may be better able to learn to control these factors and build confidence in your performance.

Skill level

Simply being given a new task can offer a challenge, and the desire to learn can be a natural motivator. Once you've mastered a skill, boredom can set in and you may need an additional incentive to stay motivated.

Task Complexity

When completing simple tasks, your skill level may be enough to get things done well. However, when task complexity increases or if you are completing a task that's new to you, then in can be beneficial to work in a more low stress environment. Anxiety over performance doesn't need the addition of further stressors.


People experience stress levels differently. What feels like unmanageable stress for one person may be just the right amount for another person to thrive. Some people enjoy working under pressure, while others may shut down completely.


People with higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence may also have an advantage when dealing with stress and performance. Their attitude is often "I'm on top of this".

However, people with lower levels of self-confidence may feel more pressure when given a task, dealing with negative thoughts and self-criticism that make them anxious about potential failure.

Finding Your Performance Sweet Spot For Task Completion

The relationship between these performance factors can be key in finding that sweet spot of motivation. According to Yerkes Dodson law, you will thrive with enough stress to offer motivation but not actual overwhelm.

The inverted U curve is a visual demonstration of this concept, with too much stress on one end and too little on the other. Right in the middle of the inverted U curve is the point you want to be.

This point can look different for everyone because everyone experiences different levels of stress response. But a good beginning is to understand that some pressure is necessary to complete a task, while too much is detrimental. Finding the perfect relationship between pressure and control may take some time, but it is not impossible.

Yerkes Dodson Law and Stress Management

Yerkes and Dodson understood the relationship between stress management and performance. Arousal increases motivation, but anxiety and stress can't be allowed to get out of control. A medium level of stress is ideal for getting things done. With that in mind, let's look at some stress management strategies that can help you hit the ideal point of that inverted U curve.

  • Take care of your physical health by practicing healthy lifestyle habits
  • Break up tasks into manageable chunks, and allow yourself time to complete them
  • Practice mindfulness skills such as breathing exercises, meditation, or yoga
  • Take small breaks from your work throughout the day

By protecting your mental health, you can also increase your work performance. Remember that it's not necessary to embrace the so-called grind and that by managing stress and reducing anxiety, you can actually work both harder and smarter.

Therapy for Stress Relief and Work Performance in Austin

If you want to learn how to manage stress more effectively and use the Yerkes Dodson law to improve your work performance, your best bet is talk therapy with a licensed therapist in Austin.

Williamsburg Therapy Group maintains a high level of availability, meaning you can get the help you need from a doctoral-level therapist as soon as you need it.

Book a Therapy Session in Austin Today

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