Stress on Performance
Stress, Performance, and the Brain
Our brains perceive stress from a combination of sensory signals such as smell (something burning or unpleasant), taste (soiled food or something sharp), touch (something painful/injury), sight (seeing a difficult situation or something frightening), and sound (hearing that you have two additional projects to complete this week while preparing for your upcoming presentation or big game/competition). After our brains put these collective signals together into a perceived stress (via brain structures called the amygdala and prefrontal cortex), our prefrontal cortex (decision-making brain center) then decides how to respond to the stress. Once that decision has been made, the prefrontal cortex alerts the amygdala to send signals (nerve impulses) to the hypothalamus-pituitary pathway, which then relays signals to the rest of the body (hormone signals). These signals act on the adrenal glands (which sit on top of the kidneys) causing them to release cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol increases blood sugar so that the body has sufficient energy to react to a stressor, slows metabolism, and increases heart rate and respiration. Adrenaline increases blood pressure, heart-rate, and energy. Therefore, stress can be a source of energy for the body. It is noteworthy that excess cortisol from long-term high stress causes weight gain, as cortisol acts on insulin/blood sugar levels and thyroid hormone conversion, thus slowing metabolism. Thus, it is important to learn to manage stress in order to maintain body weight and be healthy overall.
Is stress always a bad thing? Does stress fuel you to succeed or does it hinder your performance? There are many factors involved. First, it depends on when the stress occurs. If the stress occurs the day of the event or the day before the event then it likely will hinder the process. This is because the stress presents itself with little time left for improvement or preparation. If, however, the stress happens weeks ahead of time then it will likely be good encouragement for you to press on and do your best, with time to make modifications to your preparation if necessary, and still enough time left to continue to prepare.
Second, it depends on whether the stress is related to your goal – if you have a big game coming up and wanting to succeed in the game is stressing you out then you will likely practice harder in order to do well and achieve your goals. On the other hand, if you are nervous about an upcoming presentation that you must give at work or school and your landlord suddenly tells you s/he is selling the condo you are renting, and you have two weeks to move out – right in the midst of preparing for your big presentation – then this stress (that is unrelated to your goal) will likely hinder your performance.
Third, the amount of stress makes a huge difference in whether the stress will positively or negatively influence your performance. A small to moderate amount of stress can fuel us to take action and do a better job at the goal. Whereas, beyond a certain point, which most of us call our “breaking point”, the stress is simply a negative factor that boggles our minds and detracts us from the goal. Therefore, some amount of stress usually keeps us focused on the objective and alert1, but there is a fine line between encouraging stress and overwhelming stress (which if maintained long-term can lead to chronic health conditions2).
Fourth, each person reacts slightly differently to stress and it is highly variable. Some people work really well under pressure and actually get bored if things are too calm. Whereas, others perform better when not stressed, and stress just deters them from succeeding. Since almost all things in daily life can be somewhat stressful – driving/traffic, rushing to be on time, finances, eating a healthy diet/lowering junk food intake, making time for exercise, getting enough sleep, having a work/life balance, being successful, finding the time to keep in touch with family and friends – just to name a few, it is important to try to respond to stress in the most positive way possible. Try to let the stress that you encounter promote healthy and productive habits for yourself by using the stress as a form of an energy source which encourages you to succeed. Additionally, try to be aware of when you are stressing about the stress you are experiencing or stressing over something needlessly, because that will allow you to try to minimize stress that detracts you from your goals. Once the stress reaches a point of being counterproductive, that is when you need to recognize it and try to reduce your stress back down to a useful level.
Always try to harness any and all stress into positive energy and put it to good use to help you succeed in your performance and stay alert1. Most importantly, remember that stressed spelled backwards is desserts, so splurge and grab a little piece of chocolate when you are stressed.
1. Robertson, Ian H. (2016) “The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper” New York, Bloomsbury.
2. Yaribeygi H. et al. The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review. Excli Journal. 2017;
About the Author: Melissa Walker, PHD
Melissa Walker is a Neuroscientist, having earned her B.S. in Neuroscience from UCLA in 2000, and her Ph.D. in Medical Neuroscience from Indiana University School of Medicine in 2016. She greatly enjoys the many facets of medical and technical writing. She has 8 years of neurotrauma research (spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury), 3 years of clinical research (Alcohol addiction), including 8 years of clinical and preclinical brain imaging studies (iOIS, NIRS, fMRI, MRI, PET)