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Making Sense Of The Quicksand Trap Part 1: The Human Performance Curve - Another Key Reframe For Coaches & Therapists

In this series of articles, I've presented some important and useful reframes for therapists and coaches working in stress and anxiety management, starting with the quicksand-trap metaphor, which reframes the real problem not as the emotion of anxiety or the physical feelings of stress, but ineffective coping strategies which whips up minor discomfort into a major problem.

But we need to go further than presenting problems in a new light; we need to open up new ways of working towards solutions. In today's article I present a very simple concept, that you've almost certainly encountered before, that does just that.

It builds on the quicksand-trap metaphor, in the sense that it gives a clearer idea of what's going on in quicksand situations, and conceptualises what clients need to do instead.

It's the Human Performance Curve, also known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.

The core idea is that peak performance in any domain happens at a balanced level of (i) physiological arousal, and (ii) effort or willpower. Once you go past this point of peak performance, making more effort and getting more worked up only degrades your performance. It's easier to grasp this point if you see the HPC as a diagram, which is what I do in this video:

(By the way this material is drawn from my online training material that you get as part of my stress resilience training programme – in fact the HPC is a core model that I return to again and again.)

Here's the HPC diagram again:

human performance curve

So the “quicksand trap” happens when you find yourself to the right of the peak, trying harder and heading down the slope.

Clearly what anyone in this situation needs to do is learn how to move back to the left. This next video excerpt puts that in context.

The leftward-moving faculty is a skill that can be trained and developed – I'm not suggesting that clients have to resign themselves to anxiety and get on with life as best they can.

The HPC is a powerful idea that clients can easily relate to, and it can be adapted to many related concepts. Dan Goleman, in his book “The Brain & Emotional Intelligence” uses it to frame the link between biology and psychology – his book became a significant inspiration for me. And of course it fits well with biofeedback, which is a tool for training the leftward faculty.

Clearly the leftward faculty is distinct from “will-power” which is more about moving right, increasing arousal, etc. There is still much to say about how to teach it to clients – and I'll continue the theme in future articles of this series.

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