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Optimizing the Stress/Anxiety Curve

  • by Paige Mauriello
  • Sep 22, 2021
  • Reviewed by: Amy Rontal

How to optimize your stress using the Yerkes-Dodson Law to perform better on the USMLE and Step 1 and Step 2 CK studying.

As a student this late in the game, you’re familiar with stress. Frenemies, if you will. You know how Stress likes its eggs, you know where Stress goes when it needs to get away, you know Stress’s middle name.

Despite the bond you share, Stress is still the worst! No one wants Stress at their party. But, a little stress can actually be quite helpful. If you somehow dodged cramming Yerkes-Dodson into your brain back when you were prepping for the MCAT, allow us to explain!

Yerkes-Dodson Curve

In 1908, a couple of psychologists (Yerkes and Dodson, of course) discovered that the mice they tested on performed both simple and difficult tasks better at an optimal level of arousal. This optimal level of arousal sat between low arousal and high arousal (illustrated below). To be accurate, they also found that performance in simple tasks continued to increase with high levels of arousal or stress, but that difficult tasks took a dive in performance as anxiety increased.

The model you see below is the more popularized Hebbian version of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, which is the one most relevant for our purposes.

Yerkes-Dodson Curve

As with everything, the optimal level of stress is different for everyone. What may be very little stress for one person may be incredibly challenging for another. You know what this feels like, though. Remember? Frenemies? You know what it feels like to have a little fire under your feet; it’s motivating and clears your head. But you also know how it feels to be so stressed you feel like maybe you never actually had access to your own thoughts; or alternatively, so bored you can’t remember what you ate for breakfast let alone recall any complex information. What we mean to say: you know what amount of stress works for you and what amount sends you spiraling.

Change Your Mindset

So what does this mean for you? It means in order to study you’re going to need to administer the optimal level of electric shocks to your body; sorry, we don’t make the rules. Kidding! It means you can use time and reasonable constraints to your advantage. It helps you see the timing tools on your UWorld blocks, for example, not just as a way to practice for the actual test, but as a tool to better your focus and determination. It also means building a strict-not-so-strict study schedule, dare we say optimal, is not something you do just for planning purposes but because it will help your performance overall. (And you know who can help you build a study schedule?)

We see this information as a tool for your intuition. Next time you just can’t get your head on straight during your dedicated, take a moment to analyze your stress levels. Are you feeling lifeless? Maybe you need to add an attainable time constraint to the block you’re on or try to challenge yourself with a new topic. If your mind is reeling, consider taking a step away to get a few things done that you can’t get off your mind; or never underestimate the power of a good walk outside. (Check out this post for 5 stress reduction tips for med students by Health Writer Issy Fuller)

As always, we believe having a plan you can trust is also a huge part of managing med school stress. Create your personalized study plan (with catch up days and our magical Rebalance button to help take the stress out of falling behind) with our free 7 day trial now.