Neuroscience Stress Management

The good side and the dark side of stress. The neuroscience behind it and its impact on our cognitive performance.

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During my NeuroMindfulness Coach Certification Programme, I have learnt about the concept of the “Stress Curve” and how there is a good side, and a “dark side” of stress. Under its academic name, “the Yerkes-Dodson law”, it describes how cognitive performance evolves with stress levels. It thus proposes that there is a relationship between performance and alertness/or stress levels.

When we’re not stressed at all, we’re not really motivated to work. That’s when we are on the green zone. Here, we tend to be laid back and relaxed. Then, when the level of stress increases a little, maybe we have a deadline, but we are still ok, we are in the optimal stress zone: the yellow zone, called also Eustress. But if we stay too long in the yellow zone, quite quickly, we can go into the orange zone, where we already have too much stress. This leads to overload and exhaustion. And then, we move to the red zone, the Distress zone, where we will start to feel anxiety, panic, anger, and eventually: burn-out.

Looking from the point of view of hormonal activity, we can see the following:

  • In the yellow zone, Eustress, there’s essentially a sequence of Dopamine, the pleasure hormone. That is because we need a little stress to be motivated and it helps to have a deadline, a challenge. So this is a zone where it’s nice and pleasurable to be in.
  • When we move to the orange zone, we release mostly Cortisol, a stress hormone. This is not necessarily negative: it helps us be awake and active.
  • It’s when we move to the red zone that we reach the “dark side”… The dominant hormone will be Adrenaline, which will redirect all the energy of our body to survival functions. So then, the focus will not be to be smart/wise/creative…

Let’s look now in more detail at the Distress zone (the “dark side” of stress): it has three consequences on our cognitive capacities.

  • Decreased attention
  • Decreased working memory
  • Increased mind-wandering

If you remember my introduction to the three neural networks of attention in this article, then you probably recognize what is happening here. I’ll share that summary here below:

When we talk about focus and attention, at any time, in our brain, one or more of these three networks of attention are active: Default Mode Network (DMN), Central Executive Network (CEN) and “Salience” Network (SN).

  1. The Default Mode Network:
    • Is responsible for mind-wandering, when we don’t think of anything in particular.
    • It is interesting to know that especially under stress/anxiety, this mind-wandering focuses on negative/catastrophic scenarios (though, even in normal circumstances, it tends to focus on the negative).
    • Its main characteristic is that it distracts us from the present and it projects us either in the past (many times leading to ruminations) or in the future (leading to worries).
    • Mindfulness weakens the DMN structurally and functionally.[i]
    • The DMN is actually in balance with the two other networks, which are responsible for attention:
  2. The Central Executive Network: responsible for focusing our attention – it allows us to select information and focus on something
  3. The “Salience” Network: responsible for noticing things, but also involved in processes like self-awareness and empathy. It helps us notice external things or internal sensations[ii]

Whenever we are stressed or anxious, the balance is shifted more towards the DMN and thus, our mind wanders a lot, focusing on the negative, to the detriment of CEN and SN, the two networks of attention.

The Default Mode Network, responsible for mind-wandering is very active in the Distress phase and thus we find it very difficult to focus, notice things… and well… to work.

Increased stress can help improve performance, but only up to a certain point. At the point when stress becomes excessive, performance diminishes.

So, what does this means for you?

In order to perform at your peak at work/sports/school, you need to find your optimum level of stress. Different people have different overload points so we need to take this into consideration.

To find our optimum level of performance, we need to ensure that we adjust the demands of the task to meet our skill level. The task needs to be challenging, but achievable (some studies show that a 4% delta between what I know and what the task demands is a good level of challenge). When we are in this optimum zone, we know we need to practice and refine our skills. We need to be focused and concentrate on the job at hand… and this is motivating.

To put it simple, how it looks like in a normal day, is that we normally start to work on a task either when we are in the optimum stress, and we find intrinsic (or extrinsic) pleasure in working on the task (Eustress) or when we enter Distress, and we are now anxious, panicking, etc: we need to finish the task today or tomorrow, no other choices.

Some people might say: I perform better when under stress – and that can be true. The problem is that when we are under Distress for longer periods of time, and tasks keep on accumulating, sooner or later we’ll reach burn-out. Too much time under distress, with overload, leads to burnout and when we’re there, our cognitive performance decreases so we won’t be able to do the task at the same level of quality.

And another thing that we must remember: we should avoid staying too long “on the dark side” (e.g. months), because that’s when our immune system decreases its activity and it can lead to health problems.

This is why it is really recommended to take care of the difficult tasks in the first part of the day, when we have energy, as it helps us stay away from the red zone. Brian Tracy, in his “Eat that Frog” bestseller, knew what he was talking about.

[i] Source: Fox, Kieran C. et al., (2014). “Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners”. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. 43: 48–73

[ii] The theory regarding the three networks is based on the NeuroMindfulness Coach Certification Course, created by The NeuroMindfulness Institute, which I have completed in 2020.

Featured image Designed by pch.vector/Freepik

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