Arousal, not stress

“A little bit of stress is good as it gets me going; too much of stress…aah…I can’t stand it”

This commonly held belief can be traced back to early 1900s, when the Yerkes-Dodson “Law” (in psychology) was proposed. It conceptualized that view a certain amount of arousal was necessary for performance but too much impeded performance. Studies in the last two decades have shed greater light on this issue, by delineating that this relationship differs to some extent between simple versus complex tasks. Contemporary view holds that while a certain amount of arousal facilitates performance on simple tasks, it may impede performance on difficult or complex tasks.

Was Yerkes and Dodson’s notion of ‘arousal’ synologous with what is commonly thought of as ‘stress’ today? “Stress” is defined as our physiological and mental response to perceived threat/feeling overloaded. Arousal may be perceived as a challenge to be enjoyed, or as a task associated with stress, depending upon how one is approaching the task at hand. A salient feature ignored by researchers is the fact that ‘arousal’ may be of differing modes, depending upon the intent/what is causing it. If one has the attitude of mastering a task, if one is approaching life with a certain sense of consciousness/individual responsibility, the arousal that ensues is driven by an internal need of mastery/achievement/conscientiousness, which is not ‘stress’. On the other hand, if one is approaching a task out of frustration/’having’ to do it, but not really seeing any intrinsic value in it/for extrinsic rewards, then the arousal may have elements of ‘stress’.

How to perform one’s work/duties has been tackled in ancient texts of yoga. These define the concept of ‘karma yoga’. Karma Yoga is a combination of several aspects. First, it is about going about one’s life’s duties with equanimity and from a higher sense of individual consciousness. A strengthened power to discern right from wrong for oneself, and connectedness to the higher self are also implied. A third component of this is detachment from outcome. That is, to do one’s duties, but to know that results may or may not happen, as these are dependent on several extraneous factors that are outside of one’s control. According to the ancient texts, a combination of these factors helps guide one’s approach to life tasks with a steadfastness.

Relating this back to the notion of intent behind one’s need to perform, optimal performance can be achieved without ‘stress’ from this kind of a higher consciousness/karma yoga.

Yet another very useful concept form ancient texts on yoga is the notion of three ‘gunas’ or traits/modes, that pervade the universe, including our thoughts and actions. That is, the texts state that our every action and thought can be linked to each/combination of, these three traits. The first mode/trait is ‘sattvic’ mode, which is associated with goodness, high conscientiousness, connectedness to one’s higher purpose, and sense of equanimity. The second is ‘rajasic’ or that driven by passion/action intended to reach a certain goal for extrinsic rewards — money, power, self esteem based on work/achievement, etc. The third trait is ‘tamasic’ or that driven by laziness, sloth, or indolence. From this perspective, action that is based on sattvic will not cause stress, and will inherently drive one towards achieving/performing one’s duties with a sense of calm and firm purpose. Action based on the other two modes will lead to stress or other negative emotions. What this leads to is understanding the intent behind one’s actions, and readjusting it toward a more sattvic mode will lead to optimal performance/arousal and avoid unnecessary stress.

In sum, stress is not another term for arousal. And if one wants to perform one’s tasks well, using the principles outlined above is one path to optimal performance, which carries with it increased happiness and satisfaction, since it is situated in the sattvic/karma yoga mode.

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