Monday, February 6, 2012

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress: How Stress can Impair or Improve Performance

Some people thrive during stress

Today features another superb guest blog on Psych-Your-Mind! In this post Kate Reilly, outstanding first year graduate student at New York University, discusses how some forms of stress can paradoxically be good for one's performance. Read on! 

Imagine times in your life when you felt stress – a job interview, a first date, a piano recital, or a championship soccer game. It’s no wonder you may have felt stress in these situations: They are meaningful, they require effort to achieve success, and they involve evaluation by others. Each of these factors can  contribute to feelings of uneasiness and anxiety.

The question is: how do these feelings of stress impact performance?

In some cases, this stress might have made you feel so overwhelmed that you failed to do as well as you could have. You have probably seen enough American Idol auditions to recognize that feeling nervous can impair performance (but click here to see some contestants “buckling under the pressure” if you haven’t).

In other cases, though, stress may have taken on a different form. It may have made you feel excited, challenged, and ready to approach the upcoming task. In fact, many professional performers (e.g., actors, musicians, and athletes) note that the stress of performing feels exhilarating and helps them excel. Tiger Woods exemplified this feeling when he spoke about playing competitive golf, saying, “The day I’m not nervous is the day I quit… That’s the greatest thing about it, just to feel that rush.”

The existence of these two kinds of stress has been demonstrated in psychological research. In their model of challenge and threat, Jim Blascovich and Wendy Berry Mendes show that in motivated performance situations like job interviews, individuals can experience one of two psychological states: The state they experience depends on how they think about their personal resources (e.g., their own knowledge and skills) and the demands of the situation (e.g., required effort). Generally, when people perceive the demands of a situation as being greater than their personal resources, they experience a threat state. When they believe that their personal resources are at least as great as the situational demands, they experience a challenge state.

Challenge and threat states are characterized by divergent physiological and behavioral changes. Challenge states are associated with more efficient cardiac activity and dilation of the blood vessels. This allows blood to move quickly throughout the whole body and get to extremities and the brain more easily. In these situations, people often display an open posture that signals a motivation to approach the situation. In contrast, threat states are related to less cardiac efficiency and the constriction of blood vessels. These changes help people prepare for potential harm and are often associated with behaviors signaling avoidance.

Now that we know researchers have distinguished between two different kinds of stress, you might be wondering whether these kinds of stress are related to different performance outcomes. They are! In one study, researchers manipulated whether participants experienced a challenge or threat state by having participants give speeches to evaluators who gave them either positive feedback (to manipulate challenge) or negative feedback (to manipulate threat). After the interview, participants were asked to complete a decision-making task. Participants performed better on the task after they received positive feedback than after receiving negative feedback, and characteristic cardiovascular responses of challenge and threat mediated this relationship. This means that those who experienced a challenge cardiovascular pattern did better on the task than those who showed a threat pattern.

So the next time you are out there pitching for the Red Sox, singing on Broadway, or just giving a presentation to a few classmates, is there any way you can help yourself feel challenged rather than threatened?


According to one study, you might do well to re-think what it means to feel nervous. Participants in this study who were told that physiological arousal is an adaptive, performance-enhancing response exhibited more cardiovascular efficiency and less total peripheral resistance (responses associated with challenge states) than those who were told to ignore the source of stress or told nothing at all. These same participants also performed better on a task requiring attention.

What’s interesting here is that simply changing the way participants thought about physiological feelings of arousal (e.g., your heart beating harder or having butterflies in your stomach) influenced how they experienced stress. The next time your friend takes the GRE, tell him or her that feelings of anxiety improve performance. It just might help!

Take-home message: Not all stress is bad for you! Depending on how you assess the situation, stress can be experienced as a challenging force that improves performance or a threatening one that impairs it.

Have you noticed that stress can take different forms? When you need to perform a stressful task, do you have any strategies that help you feel challenged rather than threatened?

Kate Reilly is a doctoral student in social psychology at New York University. In her current research, she explores the influence of emotions and stress on behavior and the mechanisms underlying self-regulation.


Blascovich, J. & Mendes, W. B. (2000). Challenge and threat appraisals: The role of affective cues. In Forgas, J. (Ed.). Feeling and thinking: The role of affect in social cognition. Cambridge University Press, Paris, 59-82.

Jamieson, J.P., Nock, M.K., & Mendes, W.B. (in press). Reappraising physiological arousal improves cardiovascular responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Kassam, K., Koslov, K., & Mendes, W. (2009). Decisions Under Distress: Stress Profiles Influence Anchoring and Adjustment Psychological Science, 20 (11), 1394-1399 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02455.x

Mendes, W., Blascovich, J., Hunter, S., Lickel, B., & Jost, J. (2007). Threatened by the unexpected: Physiological responses during social interactions with expectancy-violating partners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (4), 698-716 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.4.698


  1. Right on. Concise and informative. Thanks. WDM

  2. It is fascinating to read about the science/physiological side of
    this. I am a musician and over the past year I've figured out that if
    I do not feel TOTALLY prepared my hands will shake in a
    performance/class/audition. But if I feel really well prepared for my
    pieces I have stress that helps me do better and my body does not
    shake at all.

    After reading your article though I realize that it's actually how I
    PERCEIVE my preparation.. as opposed to how prepared I actually am.

    Thanks for sharing this information!

    1. Thanks for linking this to your experience with music performances!

      I am glad you mention how preparation influences your experience of stress. This makes sense - feeling prepared helps to boost your sense of resources. And you are right that it's about make sure you give yourself credit for all the practicing you are doing, and hopefully you will experience a challenge state onstage!

  3. Well done. I'll incorporate this information in dealing with pre-tournament jitters and hope to report better scores. SJR

  4. You may contact Brahmakumaris and listen what they have to say about stress. You can hear a different story and research on it.

    1. Ah ha - this looks like another perspective on how to deal with stress. There are many techniques out there, and it's important for people to use whatever works for them. Thanks for the suggestion and for reading!

  5. es un estudio muy interesante!!!!

  6. Kate: Well written and applicable in the educational context as some of your older friends suspected in their graduate student days:
    The issue for ongoing research is what is the optimum combination of praise and challenge to maximize individual performance. I suspect that the best parents,teachers, and coaches are closer to figuring this out than are most social scientists. Go ahead, prove me wrong. Choose best for you: Bet you can't/I know you can.
    Kevin's Uncle Rob

    1. Hi Kevin's Uncle Rob: Thanks for the article! I had no idea you had done some research on performance in the academic domain - very cool. You touched on a key issue here: individual differences. People appraise situations differently, and what leads to a challenge state for one may lead to threat for another. Parents, teachers, and coaches are probably in a great position to assess these individual differences and decide on the best way to frame a situation for each kid. Thank you for reading!

  7. Fascinating! I observe a lot of swimmers who are consistently really fast during swim practice. During important meets, however, some of them excel and others are unable to achieve the same times. Sounds like they could use a good lesson on the positive aspects of stress. CMA

    1. Yes - now you are equipped to inform them! Thanks for the observation and for reading!

  8. Thought provoking . . . putting stress in its place, so to speak, psychologically and physically!

    1. Exactly. Thanks for reading - I'm glad you found the post interesting!

  9. This is a very informative post.

    I also believe that awarenes of the "threat state" that you mentioned and the usual response to that feeling of threat is really important to working out a way from breaking free from stress.

    I sometimes like to suggest that people tune into the emotions they are

    feeling the most when they they are regularirly experiencing bad stress.

    This can be really useful for working out a way of reducing stress in a more sustainable


    In a lot of cases, intense negative emotions have the impact of limmiting our functional

    ability in some way and can have an indirect impact of increasing our experience of stress

    for example, If the biggest emotion we find ouself experiencing is anger, we would find

    that, at the root of our stress is a feeling that other people and other situation a

    causing us discomfort and distress.

    A lot of our efforts will be geared towards getting this control back. The stress increases

    as we continue to find this an imosible task to acomplish.

    If our stress is rooted in a regular feeling of sadness, ourstress would be driven by a

    perception tha we are failing, or that we are not worthy. a lot of our preassures will be

    around trying desperately not to fail or trying to aquire things or frendships that make us

    feel worthy.

    If anxiety is at the base of our stress, then we would most likely be driven to avoid a lot

    of people or situations because we see ourselves as vulenerable in some way.

    A lot of our decisions and actions are driven by the need to avoid, failure, hurt, pain,

    rejection, negative critisism etc.

    When we tune into these emotions, we can beging to apply

    a number of practical strategies, which has the effect of reducing our experience of bad


    Thanks for the inspiration

  10. This was a great article! This actually made me think twice about upcoming events I was feeling stressed about. I am learning about stress and how it effects the body in my Psychology class right now, and this helps me understand stress in a different way.

    Although, when I am stressed and have anxiety, I get into a mode (especially a job interview or speech) where I turn off everything I told myself before that I was going to say or do. Anxiety sucks, and it definitely plays a huge role in stress.

    I will definitely tell myself that anxiety can help calm my nerves and hopefully will help me stay positive and do better!