The Science of Stress Management: Your Brain on Cortisol

Reticular Activating System Productivity CortisolYou’re swamped with a huge project when your boss suddenly asks you to complete another urgent assignment due tomorrow. Your heart’s beating a mile a minute and you’re wondering how you’re going to get this all done. But somehow you’re going to try to make it work.

Too much stress will overwhelm you, but too little stress leaves you bored and unmotivated. The right amount of stress motivates you to succeed instead of making you crack under pressure.

Your ability to thrive or choke under pressure is ultimately based on the Yerkes-Dodson Law: Moderate stress up to a certain point can actually improve your performance. But beyond that point, your performance suffers.

Stress management is actually built into your brain’s chemistry. Here’s the science behind your body’s stress levels so you can maximize your productivity.


Stress and Performance

Imagine that you’re focused on sending a few quick emails before you head out for lunch. You’re able to zone out of your surroundings until you hear a coworker say your name. Your attention quickly shifts to your coworker. That was your reticular activating system at work.

The reticular activating system (RAS) is a pencil-thin piece of your brain that sorts through thousands of messages every second. It’s like your personal spam filter to determine what information is really worth your attention.


Your RAS activity can be illustrated by what’s known as the Yerkes-Dodson curve. The RAS speeds up and makes you more alert as stress levels increase.

Your stress levels are regulated by cortisol, which works in harmony with the RAS. Too much cortisol will damage your workflow. Some cortisol, on the other hand, can make you a more focused worker.

  • In the calm zone, your RAS is slowed down. You feel bored, tired, and find it hard to focus on your work.
  • In the stress zone, your RAS is starting to pick up speed. You feel highly active and alert. You notice increased attention and interest in your work. At the top of the curve, you are most engaged in your work.
  • In the distress zone, your RAS is in overdrive. You’re super anxious and feeling totally overwhelmed by your work.


Here’s the science behind how cortisol affects your productivity.

Moderate Cortisol Levels Maximize Performance

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied the most talented athletes like Michael Jordan, and he discovered a state of heightened focus that helped them stay “in the zone.” He described the experience like this: “There’s this focus that, once it becomes intense, leads to a sense of ecstasy, a sense of clarity: you know exactly what you want to do from one moment to the other.”

When your cortisol is under control, you can get “in the zone” at work the same way Michael Jordan did on the basketball court. Cortisol hormones attach themselves to mineralocorticoid receptors at lower stress levels, which improves memory. You’re able to stay focused under pressure, and your memory is sharper.

When you’re at a moderate stress level, you’re in the middle of the Yerkes-Dodson curve. Your cortisol levels are neither too high nor too low, and you’re operating at your peak performance (the stress zone).

Challenging tasks seem more manageable when you’re in this state of flow. Problem solving becomes almost automatic. You’re able to efficiently move from one step to the next without hesitation.

But once your cortisol levels increase beyond this point, your productivity starts going downhill.

How increased cortisol levels damage your productivity

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger worked 12 hours at his practice on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and then he went down to his other clinic on the Bowery to work until 2 AM. He actually came up with a term for the severe fatigue and stress he was experiencing from this routine—burnout. You experience this same feeling of burnout when cortisol levels are too high.

Elevated cortisol levels cause the reticular formation’s neurons to fire more rapidly, making you feel extremely anxious. Besides messing with your RAS, cortisol hormones attach themselves to glucocorticoid receptors when stress levels are increased, which interferes with memory. You become stressed out and forgetful.

When you’re totally stressed out, you’re on the right side of the Yerkes-Dodson curve. Your cortisol levels are at a maximum, which corresponds to breakdown and lousy performance (the distress zone).

Too much anxiety will paralyze you and make it impossible to concentrate on your work. You’ll find yourself unable to perform under pressure.

How to  Reduce Stress

Chronically high levels of cortisol can actually cause your brain cells to malfunction. But it’s possible to control your cortisol levels and reduce harmful stress.

The ideal theory of stress management would be to find the optimal amount of stress for each person. We each have a unique stress threshold which partly depends on our genes, personality, and life experiences.

Although you can’t exactly calculate your tipping point, you can lessen your chance of getting there by lowering your cortisol levels. Here are several practical suggestions to reduce cortisol production and lower stress.

  • Exercise regularly: According to research published by Harvard Medical School, about 30 to 40 minutes of moderate exercise a day (such as walking) can balance cortisol levels, manage blood sugar levels, and help you sleep better. The key is to avoid overexerting yourself, since this can increase cortisol.
  • Take power naps: Taking a brief 20 minute nap during an afternoon break is one of the quickest ways to reduce cortisol. Robert Stickgold, a Harvard Sleep Researcher, found that quick naps make people more efficient problem solvers.
  • Drink black tea: While you might be tempted to grab some coffee, research at University College London showed that cortisol levels drop an average of 47% after drinking black tea. A Dutch study revealed that black tea improves concentration and alertness, which boosts your productivity.
  • Visit a park: Researchers conducted studies in 24 forests across Japan. They sent some people to a city and others to a forest and measured their stress levels. They found that simply surrounding yourself in a forest environment lowers cortisol, blood pressure, and your heart rate.
  • Listen to soothing music: A study at Ruhr-University Bochum revealed that participants who listened to Mozart or Strauss had notably lower cortisol concentrations than those who listened to more high-energy pop.

The Yerkes-Dodson Law helps you to see that you have a tipping point. You can use stress to maximize your performance, but it’s only helpful up to a point. If you use good stress to your advantage, you’ll work at your peak performance level without burning out.

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