Is Stress Ever a Good Thing?

Stress is a common feature of life these days - whether it’s stress over an upcoming deadline or work presentation, getting the bills paid on time, or any number of other pressures associated with modern life. In fact, a study of workers in the US and UK found that 94% report feeling stress at work, with 33% saying their stress level is very high1. Despite its bad reputation, is it possible that stress can ever be a good thing? Researchers say “yes”, and in this article, we examine the case for “good stress”.

Scientists divide stress into the often talked-about “bad” stress or dysfunctional stress, and a kind of good stress called functional stress or eustress. And in fact, many studies have been able to link functional stress with beneficial outcomes, like personal initiative and productivity2 - but more on that below.

What is Good Stress?

As defined by the American Psychological Association, functional stress or eustress is “stress that involves optimal levels of stimulation resulting from challenging but attainable, enjoyable or worthwhile tasks (e.g., participating in an athletic event). It has a beneficial effect by generating a sense of fulfillment or achievement and facilitating growth, mastery, and high levels of performance.” 3 The term was coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye, known as the “father of stress research” who put together two words - the Greek prefix ‘eu-’ meaning ‘good’ and the word ‘stress’.

Logically we can all think of situations where stress is an obvious good thing; for example, in a dangerous situation, stress signals your brain and body to fight a threat or flee to safety. In these situations, stress causes your pulse to quicken, your breathing to speed up, your muscles to tense, and your brain to increase activity—all functions aimed at survival. However, the reality is that even in everyday situations where survival isn’t at risk, eustress is also important - for without it, we may become bored, or feel a lack of motivation to accomplish goals.

New research has also found that short-lived (but not chronic) stress can prime your brain for improved performance in everyday situations. Researchers at UC Berkeley determined that significant, but brief stressful events caused stem cells in the brains of rats to proliferate into new nerve cells that improved mental performance. They concluded that in the natural environment where acute stress happens on a regular basis, it keeps the brain more alert, more attuned to the environment and to what is a threat and what isn’t4.

Author and psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal has also promoted the idea that stress can be good for us in her popular book, The Upside of Stress. She believes we can channel our stress into energy that boosts performance, by changing our mindset from one that avoids stress at all costs, to one that embraces stress as a normal part of life. In this way, we can respond to it in better ways and be healthier.

The stress response is... built into how humans operate, how we relate to one another, and how we navigate our place in the world. When you understand this, the stress response is no longer something to be feared.”5
- Dr. Kelly McGonigal

Can You Turn Bad Stress into Good Stress?

Stress researchers Alia and Thomas Crum agree with Dr. McGonigal that there are times when you can change dysfunctional stress into functional stress, by changing your perception of stress. They say, “If you perceive something as a challenge instead of as a stressor, the fear you would normally experience may turn into excitement and anticipation, or at least resolve.” 6

They propose a three-step approach to responding to pressure that can help harness the creative power of stress - to make it work for us rather than against us: 1) acknowledge your stress and call it out by name, 2) own it by knowing that most important things in life don’t come easily, and 3) use it, by harnessing the short-term physiological responses to stress. Many athletes understand this process of harnessing stress for performance. As you practice the process of seeing stress as a challenge rather than a threat, it becomes more automatic, and ultimately, you may experience more eustress and less dysfunctional stress. 

Whether It’s Good Stress or Bad Stress, the Key is to Manage It

Like almost everything in life, the key is balance. Too little stress can lead to boredom and lack of motivation; too much can cause poor health outcomes. The right amount of short-lived, acute stress heightens the brain’s response mechanisms and improves performance, while significant chronic stress can cause sleep issues, joint pain, heart problems, and a whole host of other negative health issues.

One of the keys to finding the right balance is to have a deeper understanding of the context of your stress (how, when, and why it happens to you), as well as making the time and space for recovery (yes, even from good stress). Today, there are apps like Optivio which use biofeedback and wearable devices to analyze subtle changes and detect when you are stressed, and then provide data-driven training recommendations to help you manage your stress, enhance your recovery and improve your overall performance. In this way, you can harness the power of eustress and avoid the burden of dysfunctional stress.

So, the next time you’re facing a test, a work deadline, or anything else that’s high on your list of stressors, take a moment to acknowledge your stress, remind yourself of your strengths, see the potential benefits of the stress, and face it head-on – knowing you can harness your body’s physiological stress response to boost your performance. (And don’t forget to take time to recover afterward!)

Optivio is an enterprise-level stress management and performance optimization platform that can help your workforce better manage stress, and turn dysfunctional stress into eustress. Learn more about it here: http://www.optivio.com/technology 

References

1. Hansen, B, Wrike 2018: Crash and burnout: Is workplace stress the new normal?
2. Fay D, and Sonnentag S, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology: Rethinking the effects of stressors: A longitudinal study on personal initiative, doi:10.1037//1076-8998.7.3.2213. 
3. American Psychological Association: Dictionary of Psychology
4. Kirby E, and Kaufer, E, eLife: Acute stress enhances adult rat hippocampal neurogenesis and activation of newborn neurons via secreted astrocytic FGF2, doi:10.7554/eLife.00362
5. McGonigal, K: The Upside of Stress - Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It
6. Crum A, and Crum T, Harvard Business Review: Stress Can Be a Good Thing If You Know How to Use It

Enjoy more content like this, be inspired and equipped to perform at your best, by subscribing to our newsletter.

popular features

Why resilience matters in management consulting

Why Resilience Matters in Management Consulting

Building a workforce of resilient employees is a hot topic today. The unprecedented nature of the COVID-19...
Author : Optivio Team July 13, 2021
Posted in Performance
exercise + cognitive function

6 Ways Exercise Can Improve Cognitive Function

Many of us know that exercise is an effective way to improve cognitive function, but the next obvious...
Author : James Hewitt October 4, 2021

What Can Be Done About Physician Burnout?

At the beginning of the pandemic, physicians and healthcare workers were lauded as heroes. Now, nearly two...
Author : Optivio Team March 7, 2022
Posted in Stress Management