So is there a way to harness stress to your advantage while being mindful of its detrimental long-term effects?
One key factor is to avoid, where possible, the tipping point when stress leads to burnout. Burnout, with its physical and mental harms, is especially likely when stress is chronic. In Groom’s case, while short-term spikes of stress in emergency situations may have helped him do his job better, he found night shifts gruelling. “By the end of my shifts I’d feel like I had a sleep hangover and need two days to recover,” he says. After he began exhibiting compassion fatigue, he changed his work pattern and found support from colleagues.
Another factor is the presence of control. For those who feel powerless over their situation, stress is unlikely to be beneficial. Studies show that acute, uncontrollable stress limits the functions managed by the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for working memory (and thus reasoning and decision making). But with some autonomy over stressful tasks, mice and humans alike are better able to convert that pressure into higher performance.