Nobody wants to be stressed. Yet as much as we try to avoid it, some stress can be good for you. Really. “Some of our most meaningful experiences involve stress, be it excelling at work or school, maintaining relationships, or raising children,” says Jeremy P. Jamieson, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “When people reflect on the times in their lives when they have learned, grown substantially, or performed at exceptionally high levels, they often report those times having been deeply stressful.”
How can something that feels so bad be so good? Turns out, there are two types of stress, one that’s positive and another that keeps you awake at night. Here’s how to tell the difference, plus ways to make the positive stress in your life work for you.
Stress is so misunderstood
According to the American Psychological Association, we’re more tense than ever. Inflation, the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and more have all conspired to take our anxiety to new heights. But anxiety isn’t the same as stress, even though the two share many similar symptoms, says Jamieson. Both can make your heart race, voice crack, and palms sweat, but only one of them is potentially a problem.
Stress comes from the outside, like landing your dream job (a good thing!) or suddenly finding out you’re about to be transferred to a new city (terrifying). Anxiety, by comparison, is worry that comes from within that is often (but not always) triggered by stress. Like when you can’t stop thinking about the argument you just had with your best friend. Or panicking about how you’ll find time to make dinner, help with homework, and make it to your child’s parent-teacher conference on time.
Good stress versus bad stress
We hear about negative stress all the time. Yet we rarely, if ever, hear about the positive kind. But psychologists know all about it. They even have a special name for it: eustress.
“Positive stress can lead to psychological growth, help you develop new skills and capacities, and make your life larger and more meaningful,” says Melanie Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of The Stress-Proof Brain. “For example, taking on a challenge like running a half-marathon may be stressful, but it can increase your fitness and lead to mastery and accomplishment.”
Often, eustress has a clear upside, such as getting married, buying a new house, or having a baby. But other times, the perks may be less obvious, like going on a job interview or a blind date. Yes, these might be a little scary, but they can motivate you to take action, help you bond with others, and make you more resilient.
Making the most of stress
If eustress is so great, why don’t we hear about it more often? “The dominant cultural narrative is that stress is inherently negative and ‘bad for me’,” says Jamieson. “People often get stressed about being stressed and then expend a lot of energy trying to get rid of or reduce the stress they are feeling.”
But tapping into eustress isn’t about eliminating stress. It’s about what Jamieson calls “stress optimization.” Instead of trying to minimize stress, he suggests focusing on how you perceive and react to stress. Rather than viewing stress as a negative to overcome or avoid, he encourages people to learn to embrace difficult situations and life events as challenges.
So next time your boss asks you to take on a tough new project and your blood pressure starts to rise, take a deep breath. Then consider all the good things that might come from it, like new skills, networking opportunities, and a chance to shine. After all, “nobody ever achieved new heights by staying in their comfort zones,” says Jamieson.
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