Surfing the stress curve

Using the Yerkes-Dodson Law to craft a better, calmer life.

Ben Werdmuller
4 min readJan 29, 2022


It’s no secret that I’ve been pretty stressed out.

Someone I trust said that my writing lately has given the impression of “a man on the edge”. I think of it slightly differently — there’s a lot going on and I feel like I’m dealing with it in good humor — but I accept the idea and the intent behind it.

One of the most useful concepts I’ve been introduced to over the last couple of years is the Yerkes-Dodson curve. I’m not a psychologist, so please excuse my layman’s explanation: the idea is that we’re at peak performance when we have an optimal level of sensory arousal. Too little arousal and we’re maybe increasing our level of interest, but not in the zone yet; too much and we burn out quickly.

In contexts where there’s a lot going on, you’re already further along the curve. Because you’re nearer to burnout as a starting position, cognitive input that might ordinarily be okay has the potential to push you over the edge.

It’s a reductive explanation — again, I’m far from a psychologist — but I’ve found that it works for me. Applying this kind of structure to the process by which it all becomes too much has allowed me to think about what those cognitive inputs are, and to build in systems of control to keep myself on the straight and narrow.

I first put this to the test a couple of years ago. My mother’s condition had worsened, and I was feeling utterly overwhelmed, which was deeply affecting my performance at work.

At the same time, I’d become addicted to some game on my phone, and was traveling to and from New York a lot. I’d pick up my phone on the plane and play the game for an hour or two; depending on the day, I might play it a little in my AirBnb after work. There were a lot of notifications involved: lots of input.

In the scheme of things, the game was just a distraction. The big input was my mother’s terminally declining health, which was something that was always going to affect me psychologically, and wasn’t something I could or wanted to cut out of my life. (I can’t imagine what this would even have looked like.) Nonetheless, deleting the game dramatically improved my mental state. I was…



Ben Werdmuller

Writer: of code, fiction, and strategy. Trying to work for social good.