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Sheldon’s Stress Cap – Debunking widespread myths about emotions

In season 8 episode 13 of Big Bang Theory (“The Anxiety Optimisation”), the central character, theoretical physicist Dr Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is unhappy with his recent productivity at work. He immediately puts his intellect to work to solve the problem, and through his research comes across the Yerkes and Dodson Law (1908). Their law suggests that there is an optimal level of stress and anxiety that improves motivation and performance, but too little or too much stress can be counterproductive. Upon learning this, Sheldon embarks on a journey of discovery that eventually debunks two widespread myths about emotions.

Myth #1 - Stress is bad for us


Yerkes and Dodson’s research helps Sheldon recognise the potentially beneficial role of stress, and concludes that he has created “too pleasant an environment” for himself. This is something that a lot of self-help advice tends to overlook – while prolonged stress, or extremely high levels of anxiety, can be harmful to our wellbeing, some level of stress is necessary for our daily functioning. Stress is a reaction in our mind and body that is there to help up deal with threats – so stress harming our performance and damaging our health would make no evolutionary sense.


Through learning this, Sheldon decides that his stress levels are below those required for optimal motivation and performance, so begins to deliberately place himself under stress to bring his mind into a more productive state. One method he uses to achieve this is giving his friends, and his neurobiologist girlfriend Amy (Maylim Bialik), permission to stress him out, hoping that being kept on his toes will generate a state of “productive anxiety” and increase his research output.


Myth #2 – We can control our emotions if we only try hard enough


This episode not only explores the potential beneficial role of stress for performance, but it also looks at another important psychological principle – paradoxical intention. The following scene illustrates the concept well:

Paradoxical intention describes both a psychological phenomenon and a treatment method for anxiety, and has been used in many therapeutic approaches over the last century. The term was coined by Dr Viktor Frankl, best known for writing his infamous book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946) and creating the psychotherapy style logotherapy.


In the therapy I use, called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), paradoxical intention relates to the concept of ‘creative hopelessness’ – the realisation that attempting to control our emotions is futile. At best it may lead to temporary relief, and at worst it may lead our unwanted emotion to intensify and stick around longer (which is part of paradoxical intention – the harder we try to push away emotional experiences, the stronger they often become). Sheldon is directly experiencing this phenomenon in the above video – as soon as his emotions start doing what he wants them to, they then do the opposite, and he eventually realises the futility of attempting to artificially control stress - creative hopelessness in action.


Paradoxical intention not only relates to our emotions often doing the opposite of what we want them to, it also refers to the counter-intuitive idea that deliberately thinking about and doing what we are anxious about can actually reduce anxiety in the long term. The above scene similarly illustrates this concept – it’s quite uncommon for people to deliberately try to stress themselves out, so when Sheldon tries to do this, he ends up feeling unwanted joy and calm, showing that if we actually want to reduce stress, deliberately facing stress could be more useful to achieve this end.

So, if trying to control his stress doesn’t work, what would ACT advise Sheldon do to improve his productivity?


There a vast array of strategies Sheldon could try, and these would be constructed collaboratively with him. A few possible options would be:


  • Analysing how his brain prefers to learn and work, when he is most productive and what gets in the way of this, and gradually shifting his work context and environment to work better with his brain’s natural rhythms.

  • Exploring the personal values Sheldon holds that drive his academic work – these might be truth, exploration, discovery and a desire to contribute to the wider body of scientific knowledge. We could then create some rituals or routines for Sheldon to remind him of these values as he sits down to work, to help motivate him to do his best.

  • Exploring what thoughts and beliefs get in the way of his productivity, such as comparisons to his peers or aiming for greatness, which perhaps take him away from the present moment, and developing defusion tactics to apply to these thoughts when they arise.

  • Breaking down Sheldon’s larger goals into smaller, achievable ones to help him feel less overwhelmed by the demands of his job and his higher-level academic goals.

Caveats: There is emerging evidence that the Yerkes-Dodson Law and paradoxical intention principle do not apply the same way for all people and situations. Many experiments that have supported their law in fact have measured the impact of certain levels of punishment on performance, rather than stress that is generated in other ways. The law also only applies when the task is well matched to our abilities – so if we are attempting something that is well beyond our skillset, no amount of stress is likely to help us perform better. This is one reason why, for example, exposure therapy for social anxiety can work quite well for neurotypical people but is often less effective for neurodivergent folk, particularly those with neurotypes that impact social communication, such as autism.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios (2015)


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