Stress is a bad word for most of us today. But are we missing the bigger picture? Are there good things about stress too? The quick answer is a resounding Yes! Once you know how to harness stress for the good, it can motivate you to be more productive – without causing adverse health effects.
Here’s when stress can actually be good for you.
What Are Positive Stressors?
Not all stress is bad for you, though. There are two kinds of stress as far as their positive or negative effects go – eustress and distress. The less pleasant form of stress may manifest as acute stress. This causes you to be anxious or irritable and even brings on depression. It can even result in muscular aches and pains, digestive problems, raised blood pressure, migraine headaches, shortness of breath, and chest pain among other things. Even worse, when that stress becomes routine or grinding and is a regular feature of your life, it takes its toll. This stress, called chronic stress, is something you should try and have treated as soon as possible. Left unchecked, it can stoke suicidal tendencies or violence or cause strokes and heart attacks.1
While you could do without distress, eustress can actually be a positive experience. It is what you’d call “good stress.” This is the kind that incentivizes you to put in an effort to accomplish the task at hand. It is stress that fuels you, challenges you, motivates you, and even helps you be more productive. Many people even thrive on such stress.2
When you have just a short-term experience of acute stress it isn’t all bad. You may feel exhilaration or a “rush” from the stress. Picture yourself doing some form of adventure sport – that rush you experience comes from stress response and can be a positive experience if the stress is short-lived.3 It’s what leaves many people feeling “more alive.”
Positive Reactions To Stress
Your body goes through some physiological changes when you are exposed to stressful situations. And odd though it may seem, some of these are actually good for you.
Amp Up Alertness
When you experience stress, your body gets an adrenaline rush that helps make you more alert. The fight-or-flight response that’s triggered by stress causes the release of epinephrine or adrenaline. With the additional adrenaline pulsing through your body, you experience a faster heartbeat and greater blood flow to the heart, vital organs, and muscles. Your lungs are able to expand capacity by the opening up of smaller airways as you breathe faster. This enables increased oxygen supply to the brain, which makes you more alert and helps you focus better. Even your hearing, sense of sight, and awareness are heightened.4
Learn Coping Mechanisms For Future Challenges
Stress is also an excellent learning experience for your body. Your system is trained to process the experience and “rewire” itself in the hours following a stressful experience. This helps you gain knowledge from the experience and better prepares you to cope with it in future. Which is why you should see the challenges as positive learning experiences even if they may not feel very good when you’re going through the worst of it. Psychologists even have a name for it – “stress inoculation” – because much like a vaccination that helps your immune system prepare better for a possible future exposure to a disease-causing virus or bacteria, stress itself can protect you from harm from future stress!5
When used positively, stress pushes you to do more than you normally would, making you more productive. That’s precisely why some people say that stress at the workplace drives them to be more efficient and do better. In fact, when you are under stress, your brain actually leverages more capabilities that it has than normal. It sharpens your intelligence, awareness, and memory during the process, and all of this helps increase productivity as well.6 That could explain why a team is still able to deliver results when up against a hard deadline, often exceeding their own expectations as well as those of others.
Reduce Cellular Damage
You might even be able to reduce damage to your body at cellular levels when you experience short bursts of stress. The key here is that the stress must be in short spurts and not chronic. As one piece of research found, when test subjects were made to give a speech in front of a difficult panel of judges, the women who were usually relaxed but experienced moderate stress during the task actually had less cellular damage than those who experienced no stress at all! This led the researchers to suggest that short bursts of “eustress” could possibly even protect your health and reduce cellular level oxidative damage in some cases.7
Improve Drive And Motivation
Stress can also be a great motivator. It is a great force to drive you to work harder and do your best against all odds. And there are those who find much motivation in the challenge and actually see stress as a very positive aspect of their lives. It is what gets the job done!8
Make Life Feel More Meaningful
Some people may also find that their life is more meaningful as a result of the stress they experience. Researchers have noted that greater levels of stress and anxiety seem to be closely linked with a sense of higher meaningfulness perception of individuals’ lives.9
How To Make Stress Positive
The answer to much of the problem seems to lie in how you react to stress. Often the stressors in life are outside our sphere of control so we may not always be able to eliminate them. If that’s the case, developing the right approach and attitude is what can make all the difference.10 However, that may sometimes be easier said than done. In which case, you may be best off learning the right coping mechanisms that can help improve your threshold for stress over time. Here are some things you could try:
Try Relaxation Techniques
One way to manage stress is to trigger a relaxation response in your body at will. Pick up techniques from yoga, meditation, visualization methods, tai chi, deep breathing, or even repetitive prayer or chanting.11 Relaxation techniques can help ease muscular tension, headaches, and hyperventilation – some of the adverse side effects of stress.12
Just a simple walk in the park or a workout or dance class can help calm your mind and give your system an endorphin feel good hormone boost! Research has found that those who are physically active have more positive pleasant activate emotions – the perfect counter to stress.13
Build Support Systems
Don’t underestimate the value of a good support system. Whether it is a co-worker, friend, or family member, having someone to talk to can often take the edge off stress. This emotional support has been found to help during times of not just acute but also chronic stress.14
Be Realistic About What You Can Control
You cannot control everything. Once you come to terms with this reality, you may find that your stress is manageable and you will learn to do your best within the constraints. For some, the pursuit of perfection is what makes stress so negative an experience. Know that you can’t manage to do everything perfectly and some problems are beyond your control. This will also help you focus on things you do have control over and will turn it into a positive stressor that you can manage.15
|↑1, ↑3||Stress: The different kinds of stress. American Psychological Association.|
|↑2, ↑8||Eustress vs Distress. Brock University.|
|↑4, ↑11, ↑14||Understanding the stress response. Harvard Health Publications.|
|↑5, ↑10||Embracing stress is more important than reducing stress, Stanford psychologist says. Stanford University.|
|↑6||Make Stress Work for You. Harvard Business Review.|
|↑7||Aschbacher, Kirstin, Aoife O’Donovan, Owen M. Wolkowitz, Firdaus S. Dhabhar, Yali Su, and Elissa Epel. “Good stress, bad stress and oxidative stress: insights from anticipatory cortisol reactivity.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 38, no. 9 (2013): 1698-1708.|
|↑9||Baumeister, Roy F., Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer L. Aaker, and Emily N. Garbinsky. “Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life.” The Journal of Positive Psychology 8, no. 6 (2013): 505-516.|
|↑12||Stress Effects on the Body. American Psychological Association.|
|↑13||Hyde, Amanda L., David E. Conroy, Aaron L. Pincus, and Nilam Ram. “Unpacking the feel good effect of free-time physical activity: between-and within-person associations with pleasant-activated feeling states.” Journal of sport & exercise psychology 33, no. 6 (2011): 884.|
|↑15||Turning Stress into an Asset. Harvard Business Review.|