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Stress: Is it good or is it bad? In reality, it's both

May 20, 2021 - 14 min read

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What is stress?

Good stress vs. bad stress

Why is it good to feel stress sometimes?

The effects of good stress

When does good stress become bad?

Can bad stress turn into good stress?

We usually don’t brag about being stressed. In fact, many of us dream of living lives that are as “stress-free” as possible. But is that really a good goal?

Life would be boring without challenges and surprises. Monotony brings its own stress. 

But stressful, unexpected, challenging events are more than just a break from boring. These potential stressors provide us with opportunities to stretch and grow. At its root, stress is exactly that — an opportunity to grow. 

It is worth examining the difference between good stress vs. bad stress, how to deal with both, how to transform stress into something productive, and why we need stress in our lives.

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What is stress?

Acute stress is the term for a short-lived stressor. It is generally associated with a protective response. If you were stepping out into a busy street, your body would react quickly in order to pull you out of harm's way. The panic that you feel is a sign of acute stress. However, when the danger has passed, the stress response generally dissipates. When it does, our body has a chance to recover from the physiological response. 

In modern life, we might experience acute stress from public speaking or an argument or nearly missing our train. Acute stress can be problematic when the stressor event is severe — for example, experiencing violence or fear for our life — and the stress response lingers.

Chronic stress is a long-lasting experience, usually rooted in circumstances that are beyond our control. We may be stressed because of relationship issues, ongoing responsibilities, systemic inequities, a quickly-changing environment, or a long-term medical condition. 

With chronic stress, we continually experience the heightened physiological response of acute stress. Since our bodies and minds don’t get a chance to recover, we begin to experience negative side effects that are damaging to our physical and mental health. These might include:

When people talk about being stressed out, they're most likely referring to chronic stress.

Eustress, however, is a positive stressor. How can stress actually be a good thing? Since the biological purpose of stress is to sharpen our senses so that we can perform at our best, a little bit of stress can actually help. 

In performance coaching, people that achieve at a high level often credit stress with their incredible performance. Athletes often talk about the pressure of the competition. Actors talk about drawing from the energy of the audience. Under the right circumstances, positive stress (usually referred to as expectation, excitement, or anticipation) can make us better.

Good stress vs. bad stress

Not all stressors are made equal. With good stress, we generally look forward to the outcome of the situation. Planning a wedding, getting a new job or promotion, or having a baby are common examples of eustress. Although these experiences involve a lot of work — and even cause some difficult feelings, as any bride or new parent will attest --  the benefit of the event is worth the challenge.

The positive feelings of expectation, excitement, and anticipation allow us to balance the disruption to our equilibrium with the anticipated benefits. In some cases, such as planning a vacation, the anticipation can actually be as enjoyable as the experience itself.

That's another important element of positive stress. Chronic stress and acute stress are both types of distress (in other words, negative stress). When you experience distress, you often don’t have any control over how long the stressor will last and no expected benefit as an outcome. 

In addition to being accompanied by a desirable outcome, good stress also generally fits within a specific time frame. In other words, you know that the stress won’t last forever. Kids grow up, you graduate from school, you unpack that last box, or you say “I do.” The sense of control that you have over the circumstances, as well as the finite time frame, makes it easier to deal with positive stress.

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Why is it good to feel stress sometimes?

Although we often refer to stress as negative, it's good to feel stressed at times. If we never had any stress, life would be pretty dull and boring. Imagine a video game with no bad guys! Pretty lame, right?

Positive stressors give us something to look forward to. They help us grow and become more capable individuals. Certain stressors give the seasons in our lives meaning, like going to college, raising small children, or building a business.

A little bit of stress is useful in the following ways:

  1. It provides you with a burst of energy
  2. It can help meet daily challenges and motivate you to reach your goals
  3. It sharpens your attention and focus
  4. It can help you accomplish tasks more efficiently
  5. It can alert you when something isn’t right (the fight-or-flight response)
  6. It can help you build resilience to setbacks

The effects of good stress

With the right amount of good stress, life becomes more exciting. Good stress results from engagement, which often leads to flow. Flow is associated with higher levels of happiness and productivity. In fact, many psychologists and coaches believe that flow is the antidote to burnout and languish.

Here are 4 benefits of good stress:

  1. You perform better and achieve more
  2. You connect with others in more meaningful ways
  3. You learn more about yourself 
  4. You challenge yourself in new ways and build your self-efficacy 

Since good stress naturally leads to growth, experiencing challenges is the surest way to develop your capacity. Famed psychologist Lev Vygotsky felt that individuals learned best when they were faced with a challenge just outside of their current comfort zone. He referred to this as the zone of proximal development, or the gap between what a person has already mastered and what they can achieve with support.

As you work to meet — and master — your current challenges, you transform your bad stress into good stress. But that’s not all. Learning to deal effectively with stress and how to use it to your advantage prepares you to perform at a higher level.

When does good stress become bad?

Good stress is still stress. Too much — of any kind of stress — can lead to the same mental, physical, and emotional side effects. It’s important to manage your well-being or work with a professional who can help you make sure you don’t overdo it. Here are 5 signs to look for when trying to decide if a source of stress has become too much. 

Good stress turns into bad stress when:

1. It's chronic. Even if it was once something you looked forward to, you now feel as if there’s no end in sight. 

2. You can't control it. You become unable to set effective boundaries or manage them efficiently.

3. It prevents you from doing anything else. If the stressor takes up all of your time or prevents you from doing other things you want to do, you may become resentful. 

4. It feels out of line with your goals. You don’t see the long-term benefit, so it no longer feels as if the stress is worth it.

5. It comes into direct conflict with another priority or value. Having to choose between conflicting values can make a mildly stressful situation emotionally taxing.

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Can bad stress turn into good stress?

The good news is that just as good stress can turn into bad stress, bad stress can turn into good stress — even when the circumstances are less than ideal. With practice, you can reframe nearly any stressful situation into a useful learning experience.

6 ways to turn bad stress into good:

1. See the potential benefits of a situation. 

Look at the situation from all angles, and reach out to a coach or therapist if you're having trouble finding the positives. Although it may not be in line with what you expected or wanted, many situations that seem challenging at first can often help us grow in unexpected ways.

2. Remind yourself of your strengths. 

When we stay in our comfort zone, we don't get to utilize our strengths to their full potential. Stressful situations allow you to step into a leadership role. They also encourage you to utilize your resourcefulness and hone your ability to grow — and thrive — under pressure.

3. Focus on the resources you have. 

Once we are ingrained in comfortable habits, we tend to take for granted the means that we have at our disposal. Working through stress can help us look at our assets in a new way. We often underestimate what we can do with what's already at hand.

4. Connect with others.  

Leaning on others to meet a challenge often bonds a group like nothing else. When working towards a common goal, people often do their best and most creative work. Collaboration allows colleagues to lean on the strength of others to maximize their own abilities. You may find that you're able to thrive in new ways when working with a supportive team.

5. Learn something new.  

There's nothing like surprising yourself. Stress allows you to grow and learn new ways to get things done. You may uncover creative approaches to long-standing challenges and develop your capacity to learn. As an added bonus, learning keeps your mind young, your mood high, and opens the door for new relationships as you grow.

6. Expect positive growth.

What do all challenges have in common? They require growth to overcome them. Leaders often cite the most unexpected or difficult experiences as the ones that prepared them the most to excel. Taking every stressful circumstance as an opportunity for growth can help transform the way you perceive and experience stress.

Stress is inevitable, but it’s not uncontrollable. Encountering stressful challenges is an opportunity to grow and develop your skills for continued success. While you can’t necessarily control everything that happens to you, you can control whether you see it as good stress vs bad stress. Your perspective will make all the difference.

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Published May 20, 2021

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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