The Stress Curve (Yerkes and Dodson Law)

Background History

“Yerkes-Dodson law from 1908 to the present. In its original form, the law was intended to describe the relation between stimulus strength and habit-formation for tasks varying in discrimination difficultness. But later generations of investigations and textbook authors have rendered it variously as the effects of punishment, reward, motivation, drive, arousal, anxiety, tension or stress upon learning, performance, problem-solving, coping or memory; while the task variable has been commonly referred to as difficulty, complexity or novelty, when it is not omitted altogether” (Teigen, 1994).

Stress Curve By Yerkes and Dodson 1908


Pressure & Performance

There are four main influencers related to pressure and performance:

  1. Skill Level.
  2. Personality.
  3. Trait Anxiety.
  4. Task Complexity.

The perception of stress from the individual can trigger the innate fight or flight response.

For The Educator

  • Remember stress can be both a negative and positive experience. This stress theory can link to ’emotional intelligence’ of the individual, well-being and potential for burnout.
  • Simulation sessions can be set up to challenge the learner along the stress curve. The educator must be aware of how they can positively or negatively influence the learners experience.
  • The environment can also impact on stress and perceived threats (culture, unsafe workplace such as violence).
  • For the educator. the question when to challenge the learner and when to step back is very difficult and will require regular review and feedback from the learner and the wider nursing team. Its good to provide a challenge, with the required supports but dropping the learner into an unsupported situation may backfire and effect confidence. Also learners (nurses) are people and have personal lives and so sometimes private life issues means the level of stress the person is experiencing renders learning negligible. This is the time to step off the learning curve, give an extension and put supports in place and to regroup at an appropriate time. Provide a personal approach to learning, not one fitted around traditional university semester timetables.

Keywords: Resilience, mindfulness, stress curve; burnout; Yerkes and Dodson Law.


Gibbons, C., Dempster, M., & Moutray, M. (2008). Stress and eustress in nursing students. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 61(3), 282-290.

Intensive (2017) Training for Stress.

Teigen, K. H. (1994). Yerkes-Dodson: A law for all seasons. Theory & Psychology, 4(4), 525-547.

Watson, R., Gardiner, E., Hogston, R., Gibson, H., Stimpson, A., Wrate, R., & Deary, I. (2009). A longitudinal study of stress and psychological distress in nurses and nursing students. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 18(2), 270-278.

Wikipedia (2017) Yerkes-Dodson Law.