If you were old enough in the 1990s, you probably remember the self-contained world of Biosphere 2 that aimed to replicate Earth's ecosystems. It failed to achieve that goal but still provided many lessons.

Among them was the importance of stress to growth and development. Trees in Biosphere 2 grew fast, some from under three meters to over ten within two years. But despite their size, they were weak and toppled. The reason? Insufficient wind to challenge them and force them to grow tougher wood

It's a good analogy to keep in mind during a pandemic, with chronic stress at unprecedented levels. This stress is taking a toll on individual, organizational, and societal health. 

But not all stress is bad. Some is necessary to perform at our best and grow stronger. 

Recently, I discussed this topic with some of my colleagues at BenchSci, and we shared thoughts on maximizing the benefits of stress while minimizing the downsides.

(Note: I recognize that we're privileged even to discuss leveraging stress for greater success. If you're struggling with chronic stress or other mental health concerns, please get the help you need.)

Work causes stress; COVID-19 worsens it

But first, let's get a handle on the wrong kind of stress and its impact.

According to The American Institute of Stress, work is the most significant source of stress for American adults. And it has gotten worse over the past few decades. Fully 80% of workers now experience job stress, and half say they need help to manage it.

The results of not managing it are severe. Over time, according to the US National Institute of Mental Health, chronic stress can contribute to conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. Economically, one systematic review estimates the impact between $221.13 million (Australia) and $187 billion (United States) per country per year.

And COVID-19 is exacerbating the situation. According to an American Psychological Association survey reported in February 2021, a shocking (though not surprising) 84% of adults reported feeling at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress in the prior two weeks.

Not all stress is bad, but too little can be

Yet despite its horrible reputation, stress also has a good side.

In 1908, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson demonstrated what became known as the "Yerkes–Dodson law." The "law" (more an observation) described the relationship between arousal and performance. In a nutshell: stress can reduce performance on complex, unfamiliar, and challenging tasks after a point, but up to then, it improves it.

My colleague Gratus Devanesan, Technical Lead at BenchSci, has a degree in aerospace engineering that sparked a helpful analogy. "When I was back in school, we used to talk about stress versus fatigue in materials. It is okay to stress materials as long as you don't fatigue them. After long periods of fatigue comes failure—when the material collapses under the load," he says. "I often found the same applies to humans. Bursts of stress bring adrenaline, spur creativity, focus our thinking, and push us beyond our own boundaries. Long periods of unrelenting stress, with no relief in sight, tend to depress us, demotivate us, and reduce our ability to perform."

In addition to Yerkes–Dodson, there's plenty of other evidence for stress's beneficial effects.

Achieving a desirable "flow" state, for example, requires the right balance of perceived challenge and perceived skill. Tasks that aren't challenging enough for our skill level aren't maximally engaging. "People talk about being 'stressed out,' but we don't talk much about when we're in an optimal state of stress," says my colleague Lindsay Murphy, Director of Business Intelligence and Analytics at BenchSci. "Medium levels of stress might come from working on a new project or doing something you've never done before. That can cause pressure and stress to figure it out, but that often feels really great and drives motivation."

There's biological evidence for stress's benefits, too. One study on rats exposed to acute stress found that they grew new brain cells that improved their mental performance.

And perhaps most surprising, given the adverse health effects of chronic stress, research suggests that mild stress increases longevity. Caloric restriction, for example, consistently improves health and increases lifespan across a range of species.

Maximize benefits and minimize downsides

With this in mind, and based on research and conversations with my fellow performance-minded colleagues, here are some ways to maximize the benefits of stress and minimize its downsides:

  • Understand your stress levels and thresholds. Genetics, life history, and life circumstances affect your ability to tolerate stress. What causes one person stress may not affect another. For better awareness of your current stress levels, check yourself with a tool like the Perceived Stress Scale.
  • Balance skill and challenge. Work that significantly exceeds your knowledge and ability to complete it can create harmful stress. But so can work that's considerably beneath your capabilities or insufficiently challenging. Seek the Goldilocks zone where skill and challenge are well-matched.
  • Ensure control over work. Autonomy and participation in decision-making are critical to reducing workplace stress. If you're a manager, ensure that you're providing it to your reports. If you're an independent contributor, push for it as much as possible. Says Murphy: "Is it something within your control that is causing the stress (a difficult project you're owning and driving towards a deadline), or something out of your control (fires, last-minute asks, competing priorities)? I think the solution for that is to ask for help when you need it to get back into the optimal zone."
  • Have a psychological safety net. Besides empowering you with control, your workplace should also ensure you feel psychologically safe. Research by Google shows that psychological safety is a critical factor in successful teams. Says Gratus: "I think it is easier to find your right amount of stress if you have psychological safety within the environment you are operating in and a team that you can openly communicate to when you feel stuck. It allows you to push, but then ask for help without feeling worried, allowing you to graze the boundary without going over it."
  • Strive for acute over chronic stress. Many chronic stressors—like a pandemic—are beyond our control. But where possible, to spur growth, you should seek out time-limited, acute stress while reducing chronic stress that can grind you down. My colleague Mark Kostove, Enterprise Sales Executive and reigning plank champion at BenchSci, uses an exercise analogy. "It has been proven that HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is the best (most efficient) way to achieve success in this realm," he says. "There is something about putting our bodies into a state of stress, for a defined period of time, allowing recovery, then repeating that is better than a sustained state of activity that never crosses a particular 'stress' threshold." (He provided a summary of research to back this up.)
  • Reframe threats as challenges. Often, our first reaction to an unexpected event is to be fearful and anxious, as we perceive it as a threat (even if just a threat to our ego). By reframing threats as challenges, they become less anxiety-inducing and more motivating. 
  • Reinterpret physiological signals. Sometimes when we're presented with a new and challenging situation, our heart races. But is that excitement or anxiety? How you interpret it will affect your stress levels, and research shows you have more control over this than you might think.

As the pandemic has made clear, many things are out of our control, contributing to chronic stress. But as we've also seen, not all stress is bad. With the right approach, you—unlike the trees in Biosphere 2—can use the right amount of stress to get tougher.

Thanks to Gratus Devanesan, Lindsay Murphy, and Mark Kostove for their contributions.

Written By:
Simon Smith (he/him)