If You’re Too Stressed, You Can’t Think Straight

broken glass
Image by Sonny Abesamis / CC BY

“I’m so upset I can’t think straight,” she says.

And I believe her. “Just take a second and breathe,” I say.

“I can breathe!” she says back. “I’m talking, aren’t I? If a person can talk, they can breathe.” Her words keep getting faster and more frantic seeming.

“I know,” I say as calmly as I can. I know I could tell her to calm down. But I also know that never in the history of saying “calm down” have those words actually helped anyone who was already agitated to relax. Instead, it usually makes them more defensive, more irritated.

So instead I say, “Slow deep breaths. It might sound stupid but indulge me.” I start breathing slowly in an exaggerated way. And even though she rolls her eyes and sighs in an impatient way, she joins me.

A minute or so later, she does look appreciably less keyed up. She’s still upset, but the panic has receded.

“Okay,” I say. “Now let’s problem-solve.”

The Yerkes-Dodson Law and You

It’s difficult to come up with good solutions when we’re too overwhelmed, angry, or upset. While the stress from feeling bad about something can be a powerful motivator to implement some form of change, it also impairs our ability to do so in an effective way.

It’s difficult to do anything well if you’re too keyed up. This is part of a phenomenon called the Yerkes-Dodson law.

Does this meant that we need to be perfectly calm before tackling a challenge? No, actually. Instead, Yerkes and Dodson found that a little stress can actually increase task performance — but only up until a point. There comes a point where stress is simply too much and makes it impossible to be effective.

Further research has found that this is particularly true when it comes to solving complex problems, such as navigating difficult interpersonal dynamics. In times of high stress, we typically narrow our field down to one or two simple solutions, ignoring the rest of the entire array of possibilities, where the optimal course of action may very well lie.

So whenever possible, step away and give yourself a minute to take the edge off any burning emotions before trying to fix a complicated problem (unless you’re a bomb tech or something and don’t have that kind of luxury). Even just a minute or two of slow breathing could be the difference between satisfactorily resolving a problem and rushing towards a “solution” that could actually make the issue a whole lot worse.

And if someone wants to step away and create that temporary distance for themselves, let them. Don’t chase them or corner them.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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