Emotional arousal and performance

September 1st, 2013

As a first-year university student, I enrolled in an astronomy course. I attended classes, took notes, and read the textbook, but I wasn’t emotionally invested in doing well. As the first exam approached, my studying was half-hearted. I lacked focus and motivation. On the day of the exam, I was similarly disinterested. Not surprisingly, my performance on the exam was dreadful.

A psychological concept, the Yerkes-Dodson Law, helps to explain my poor performance. The Yerkes-Dodson Law explains that for complex tasks (such as an astronomy exam, job presentation, or tennis match), if your level of emotional arousal is too low, you can become bored or unfocused, which negatively impacts your performance. Meanwhile, if your emotional arousal level is too high, you can become anxious or overwhelmed, negatively impacting your performance.

Somewhere between an emotional arousal level that is too low and one that is too high is an optimal level of emotional arousal that lends itself to peak performances. What is your optimal level of emotional arousal? Does it differ depending on the task? For example, I find that I typically perform better on the golf course at lower levels of emotional arousal (3-5 out of 10). However, while playing basketball, I usually perform better at moderate or higher levels of emotional arousal (5-7 out of 10).

Reflect back on your peak performances at work and at play. How were you feeling before and during these tasks? What can you learn from these performances that help you achieve optimal emotional arousal as you face future challenges?

In closing, here are a few tips for increasing and decreasing your emotional arousal to help you perform at your best:

  • Getting pumped up
    • Imagine celebrating your success
    • Shorten your breathing
    • Listen to upbeat music
  • Calming down
    • Deepen your breathing (inhale for 3 seconds, exhale for 5 seconds)
    • Focus on the task at hand, not the consequences of your performance
    • Make a tight fist for 5 seconds and then release

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