Positive Stress: Stress is Not Always Bad
Updated: Aug 8
Stress can be helpful and good for you sometimes
You've probably read all about how stress can negatively impact you.
Headaches. High blood pressure. Tummy trouble. And so much more.
What if I told you that some stress can actually be good for us, and there is such a thing as positive stress?
Surprising, I know.
Here are 3 things you need to know about positive stress, and how to make it work for you.
1. Positive Stress: But First, What is Stress?
Both positive stress and negative stress are a normal part of every day living. We tend to think about stress as a negative, since it often leads to a series of physical, cognitive, and behavioral consequences. However, stress is a normal part of everyday life, and a moderate level of stress can help us in some situations.
The stress response is a physiological response in the body that is regulated by the hypothalamus – pituitary – adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system.
From an evolutionary perspective, the stress response is an important system to help individuals survive. If we take a time machine back to when our ancestors were cavemen, they did not have many mechanisms of protection.
They did not have a house to run into under danger, or other alerts that they may be in danger. Therefore, this biological response was developed to help people recognize perceived threats and survive.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for responding to the perception of a stressor. A specific stressor (situation, person, event) triggers a reaction (interpretation of the stressor) which results in activation of the stress response through the HPA. This causes the sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones.
Stress in Modern Day Society
In modern day society, the stress response is often activated in response to pressure, difficult life situations, new things, unexpected things, things that feel threatening to us, or when we have little control over a situation.
In a healthy response, once the stressful situation has passed, the stress response diminishes, and stress hormones return to normal.
Because this response drives the autonomic nervous system, a moderate level of stress can in fact be useful for us.
2. What is Positive Stress?
Stress is often thought of as a negative thing in our lives. However, a moderate amount of stress can be helpful for us. A moderate amount of stress can activate the body and mind just enough to help us stay on our toes, stay alert and focused, and help us with completing tasks.
This is thought of as acute stress. Although acute stress triggers the body’s stress response and can result in unpleasant stress symptoms, this tends to be temporary and resolves after the stressor has been addressed. Once the body returns to its natural homeostasis, stress symptoms are no longer experienced.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law suggests that there is a powerful relationship between the stress response and the arousal it causes and performance. An experiment by Yerkes and Dodson indicated that increasing stress and arousal levels to a certain point could help attention and motivation for a task.
For example, an optimal level of stress before presenting in an important meeting can be helpful for focus and remembering the information to be presented. When an athlete is competing in a game, a moderate level of arousal can improve attention and performance. However, if the individuals in either of these situations experience too much stress, their performance can decrease according to this law.
This law also suggests that too little arousal can cause us to be inattentive, unfocused, and fatigued. The authors suggest that if arousal is too high, this can also negatively decrease performance. Therefore, a moderate level of stress with activation of the stress response is thought to be positive for performance and productivity.
Eustress is a type of stress that we feel when we are excited about something, such as going on a trip, meeting a potential date for the first time, competing against others in a game, and other events and situations that can build enthusiasm and excitement. This response can also cause an increase in our heart rate and blood pressure, but this is not associated with threats, fear, or negative things in our lives.
This is considered a positive type of stress since it can contribute to our happiness, wellbeing, and sense of fulfillment in life.
Eustress can produce a moderate level of stress that can give us a boost in attention and productivity, which helps us to feel confident and stimulated by any challenges we may be facing. This is especially helpful when we are taking on personal or professional challenges. As we see progress and success, our confidence further builds.
A great way to build more positive stress in our lives is by setting a series of professional and personal goals that provide a challenge but are also attainable. This might include new learning, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone socially, working towards various fitness goals, and other goals that can help us feel accomplished.
3. When Does Stress Become a Problem?
While positive stress can be helpful for the reasons mentioned above, unfortunately most people struggle with stress that creates problems in their lives. Stress becomes a problem when it is experienced too often, too intensely, or poorly managed. Managing work, family obligations, personal health, social connections, and many other factors can trigger the stress response more often than is helpful.
From an evolutionary perspective, development of the stress response referenced above has a protective factor in truly dangerous or potentially threatening situations.
However, evolved traits that were once helpful for survival and protection can be dysfunctional in different environments, such as in modern day living. In modern day living, we are constantly bombarded with a series of different stressors that make managing more difficult.
Although the stressors are not necessarily dangerous (e.g. running late, getting in a fight with a loved one), the stress response is activated in the same fashion as if it were a dangerous situation until the mind receives further information and clarity. Therefore, the stress response is activated much more frequently, and at times intensely, in modern day society.
Because this response can be activated during standard activities or day to day living, over activation of this response can result in stress that is too high.
Too high of stress has been shown to decrease attention, focus, and productivity since it results in overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system, triggering a series of physical, behavioral, emotional, and cognitive symptoms. It has also been linked to poor health outcomes and disease.
Common clues that stress is too high and no longer helpful:
Physical symptoms: Frequent migraines, digestive issues, chest tightness, increased blood pressure, and muscle tension
Behavioral symptoms: Changes in appetite (eating more or less than usual), poor sleep (trouble falling or staying asleep), snapping more at others, procrastination of tasks, and difficulty with productivity
Emotional symptoms: Increased irritability, frustration, anger, and other emotional changes
Cognitive symptoms: Difficulty with attention and concentration, poor problem solving, decreased decision ability, and racing thoughts
Check out this article on early stress awareness for more information on early clues that stress is becoming a problem.
Stress is a normal part of everyday life. A moderate amount of stress can give us a boost in attention, focus, and productivity. Eustress can also contribute to excitement, enthusiasm, and motivation for accomplishing various goals, which helps us live a more meaningful and fulfilling life. So, making stress work for us can result in many positive benefits.
Learning to manage stress is one of the best things that we can do for our energy, focus, and physical and emotional wellbeing. Making stress work for us rather than against us is the key to reaching our true potential in life.
Does stress work for you, or against you?
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------About Dr. Julia
Hi! I'm Dr. Julia. Health psychologist, stress and sleep expert, and creator of the Master Stress Method.
I have worked with thousands of individuals in major hospitals, university medical centers, and primary care settings to improve their stress levels, sleep, and overall emotional and physical well being.
My current focus is helping busy professionals prevent and manage the high stress that is getting in the way of their productivity, mood, sleep, and their ability to reach their full potential.
My 8-week, 1:1 coaching program has helped hundreds of stressed out, overwhelmed, and burned out clients significantly reduce their stress and anxiety, improve their sleep, and maximize their productivity, in just 8 short weeks.
I can't wait to help you stop the struggle with stress, for good. Let's chat :)