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Getting to Goldilocks

Updated: May 4, 2023

Tribute to Liu Linghua’s Drunken Beauty, Nov 2015

As a medical student and physician, I have taken more than my share of exams for classwork, board certification/recertification and licensing. Over the years, I often felt like my actual exam performance was falling short of reflecting my actual knowledge base. I envied my peers who seemed excited about exams, and wondered how to get from being “a bundle of nerves” to that zone of peak performance.

Peak performance

We tend to think about stress as being all bad, but it turns out that some degree of stress is usually needed for us to perform well. This is true of exams or any kind of performance, whether in academics, arts, sports or whatever event. Because if you didn’t care at all (i.e. low arousal), then you wouldn’t have the focus and attention needed to do well.

The bell-shaped performance curve concept was invented at the turn of the last century by psychologists Yerkes and Dodson. It posits that we are increasingly motivated by some degree of stress until we reach a zone of peak performance in which we are optimally aroused (i.e. motivated and stressed). The problem is that most of us spend way more of our time on the “impaired performance” side of the curve, where we are too anxious to perform well.

Bell-shaped Performance Curve

Another way of thinking about this is that a little fear can be exciting. I’m not a horror movie or rollercoaster fan myself, but for many people there is a thrill to being scared. And that excitement can actually enhance your performance, like when you get a burst of energy at the start of a race or you feel that rush that lights up your stage charisma even more. I call this the Goldilocks zone of stress: neither too much nor too little.

Preventing burnout

I had the pleasure of chatting about these ideas with concert pianist and music professor Pallavi Mahidhara on her podcast The Conscious Artist: Mental health Conversations with Pallavi Mahidhara.

We discussed the concepts of burnout which results from chronic stress, and how prioritizing self care is a key component of stress management and finding balance day to day. She mentioned that she used to have a tendency to have an all-or- nothing approach to performance, where she would either be working nonstop or

be at a full stop in her piano practice.

Pallavi talked about disconnecting from her body or going into “autopilot” mode, where she just wouldn’t pay any attention to whatever her body needed, whether it was sleep or exercise or better nutrition. This is such a well-trodden path to burnout, as I have experienced myself. Physical disconnection is often accompanied by emotional dissociation and turning to buffering or numbing with food, alcohol, work, exercise or gaming.

Physical disconnection and emotional dissociation are a well-trodden path to burnout

Dissociating from emotion is sometimes necessary in extreme circumstances, like an obstetrician not having time to process the vicarious grief experienced by her patient’s pregnancy loss before having to go into the next delivery. But we often make the mistake of thinking that it’s okay to bury our feelings because it feels more convenient or less scary than dealing with them.

Disengaging the autopilot

The problem is that stress from buried emotions have an unpleasant way of festering and eventually finding their way to the surface - often in even more scary or explosive ways. Emotional stress or exhaustion is thought to play a role in poor sleep, depression, panic attacks, weight gain, chronic pain, gut problems, impaired immunity, exacerbation of autoimmune disease and many other underlying health problems.

Our brains are amazingly powerful and also incredibly fragile

We are much better served by disengaging the autopilot most of the time, and reconnecting with our body’s biological signals which include emotions. It takes courage to step away from the numbing and consuming nature of the “work hard, play hard” ethos, because our inner critics may accuse us of being too soft or weak. But actually avoiding or hiding from discomfort is what’s keeping us playing small and living in fear.

Life is an ultramarathon

Life is an ultramarathon and not a sprint, and despite the miracles of modern medicine, there are no immediate fixes for the majority of chronic conditions that develop as we age. We are learning that while we are each blessed with this amazingly powerful brain, it is also incredibly fragile and prone to injury.

While brain tissue can remodel, repair mechanisms are imperfect. So missing a few nights of sleep or having a few extra shots may not make that big of a difference in the grand scheme of things. But taking excellent care of our brains and preventing cumulative injury involves tuning in and responding to signals from our bodies. So when we are disconnected from our bodies, we are only functioning with half of our total biological capacity.

Photo by Miguel A. Amutio on Unsplash

As an integrative primary care doctor, I’ve been increasingly called to shift my focus from the diagnosis and treatment of disease to partnering with our bodies’ inherent ability to heal. And I shifted further into coaching because I believe that we must each step up as individuals to preserve our own brain health and to prevent chronic disease.

Doctors and coaches can help, but at the end of the day, we are responsible for how much we move, how many hours we are in bed, and what we put in our mouths. And I’m learning that I must be tuned in to my body’s signals to get it right - it’s still imperfect and yet as ingenious as any system in Nature. But I’m committed to figuring out through trial and error what is Goldilocks/just right for me to perform at my best. I invite you to do the same.



Pallavi Mahidhara is professional concert pianist and music professor at the Reina Sofia School in Madrid, Spain. She is committed to promoting mental health awareness for musicians, artists and all human beings.

- Podcast: The Conscious Artist: Mental Health Conversations with Pallavi Mahidhara. Jan 3 2022 Episode - Dr Em Wong: Stress, Burnout and the Brain.

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