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Why Do Some People Crumble Under Stress, Yet Others Thrive?

You can use disappointment, inconvenience, and hardship to your advantage.

Key points

  • Individuals have a wide range of subjective reactions to stressful situations and yours can be positive.
  • Adaptive stress reactions are related to the type of stress reduction strategies you use.
  • Coping with negative stress requires a strong belief in the ability to exercise control over one’s existence.
The Digital Image/Pixabay
Source: The Digital Image/Pixabay

Stress Reactions Are Subjective

Imagine that you arrive at work (to a job you love) and your boss tells you that for the next three weeks, you need to work 16-hour days, seven days a week, and sleep on the floor at your workplace. If you don’t comply, your employment will end.

Would you be angry? Probably, because you are being mandated to comply and humans don’t like to be controlled and prefer to exercise choice (Ryan & Deci, 2020). After contemplating your destiny, you agree despite having plenty of social and family commitments over the next three weeks. You feel controlled, demoralized, and depressed. You anticipate the next three weeks will be a living hell.

The scenario I described is a typical workday for Elon Musk, who routinely overnights on the floor of his factories at Tesla and Space-ex. Is Elon an anomaly? Actually, no, but he is someone who values work accomplishment and perceives workplace stress differently from many of us. For Elon and others like him who have strong achievement motivation, working 16-hour days is routine, and there is no perception of external coercion.

While we all have diverse beliefs about work obligations and are resistant to change, we can transform negative reactions to external events into a personal gain if we know how.

Good Stress Is Possible

First, stress can be helpful at times. Yes, for some tasks, but not all, marginal arousal (i.e., stress) can improve motivation to complete the task (Hoffman, 2015). When individuals experience mild anxiety, they are more focused on task challenges, and their attention is directed toward having a mastery performance, provided they have the requisite knowledge and skill to complete the task. However, the classic Yerkes-Dodson rule that implies moderate stress universally improves performance has been debunked (Corbett, 2015). Improved performance cannot be directly attributed to stress, and links between compensation incentives as a means to reduce stress perceptions are ineffective (Ellback et al., 2022).

How Stress Impacts Performance

The negative perception of stress emerges when we don’t perceive any benefits to the stressful situation or outcome. When we focus on negativity, cognitive consequences develop. Anyone who has given a speech with high stress or anxiety will likely relate to the debilitating effects of worry related to visualizing potential failure.

Alternatively, heightened arousal can be a catalyst for positive anticipatory performances (Nicholls et al., 2010). This phenomenon is observable during athletic performances, when athletes are provided the opportunity to display abilities during high-pressure situations, such as during elimination or playoff games. The heightened sense of arousal stimulates physiological and psychological readiness in the individual. Athletes rise to the occasion because they transform the pressure and anticipate a positive emotional experience, believing that their superior ability and motivation will lead to a successful outcome and their ability to shine.

Stress-Reduction Strategies

Individuals presented with stress-inducing opportunities have at least two choices. After being cut off in traffic, a person can metaphorically roll up the window and drive on or succumb to anger, shouting out the window at the target of his or her contempt. A productive stress response happens when using problem-solving volitional strategies (Hoffman, 2015), such as restructuring one’s environment (driving off) and removing distractions when necessary.

Productive stress reduction happens when we engage in reassuring self-talk or consciously suppress negativity (Corno, 2004), otherwise known as finding the proverbial “silver lining in the dark cloud.” In our 16-hour day scenario, compliance and successful completion may result in learning new skills, getting promoted, or building one’s resume.

Conversely, other strategies can stagnate us and perpetuate negative emotions. Instead of orchestrating positive emotion and a sense of accomplishment, individuals may resort to emotion-dependent coping strategies (Hoffman, 2015) that are troublesome because emotion-dependent strategies impede progress toward goals and, instead, shift cognitive resources to battle the negative emotion. The stressed-out person at work gets no benefit from commiserating with others or complaining about the company, and the source of the frustration merely lingers, often becoming more unbearable.

The Caveat

For the stress reduction strategy to work, individuals must first detect and recognize instances of emerging negative emotions. More importantly, the individual must perceive negative consequences as temporary obstacles that can be ignored or eliminated rather than as fixed or insurmountable.

Coping with negative stress requires a strong belief in the ability to exercise control over one’s existence. In essence, an individual faced with an emotionally charged event must have the wherewithal to recognize the need to use deliberate and intentional coping strategies, actively avoid negative thinking, and know precisely when and how to use the regulatory strategies in the individual’s repertoire.

Like stress reactions, using the strategies is subjective, but the most resourceful and resilient people are often the ones who successfully turn sour lemons into lemonade!


Corbett, M. (2015). From law to folklore: work stress and the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 30(6), 741-752.

Hoffman, B. (2015). Motivation for Learning & Performance. Academic Press.

Corno, L. (2004). Work habits and work styles: The psychology of volition in education. Teachers College Record, 106, 1669–1694.

Elbæk, C. T., Lystbæk, M. N., & Mitkidis, P. (2022). On the psychology of bonuses: The effects of loss aversion and Yerkes-Dodson law on performance in cognitively and mechanically demanding tasks. Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, 98, 101870.

Nicholls, A. R., Polman, R., & Levy, A. R. (2010). Coping self-efficacy, pre-competitive anxiety, and subjective performance among athletes. European Journal of Sport Science, 10(2), 97–102.


Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2020). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation from a self-determination theory perspective: Definitions, theory, practices, and future directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 61, Article 101860.