What Kind of Stress is Good for You
Many people believe that all stress is bad, but you may have heard that there’s “good stress” and “bad stress.” Do you know what people mean by that? We rarely hear people say, “I’m really feeling stressed — isn’t that great?” But if we didn’t have some stress in our lives — the ‘good stress’ variety — we’d feel rudderless and unhappy. If we define stress as anything that alters our homeostasis, for good or for bad, then good stress, in its many forms, is vital for a healthy life.
However, good stress can turn into bad stress, and vice-versa. Here’s what you need to know about good stress.
Good Stress Vs. Bad Stress
So-called “good stress,” or what psychologists refer to as “eustress,” is the type of stress we feel when we feel excited. Our pulse quickens, our hormones change, but there is no threat or fear. We feel this type of stress when we ride a roller coaster, gun for a promotion, or go on a first date. There are many triggers for this good stress, and it keeps us feeling alive and excited about life.
Another type of stress is acute stress. It comes from quick surprises that need a response. Acute stress triggers the body’s stress response as well, but the triggers aren’t always happy and exciting. This is what we normally think of as “stress.” Acute stress in itself doesn’t take a heavy toll if we find ways to relax quickly. Once the stressor has been dealt with, we need to return our body to homeostasis, or its pre-stress state, to be healthy and happy.
Sources of Good Stress
Okay, back to good stress. Knowing about the different types of stress, it makes sense to get more good stress into your life. Because you actually can get too much of even the good type of stress, it’s important to choose activities in your life that make you feel good, happy, and excited about life. It’s also a good idea to cut out as many activities as you can that drain you, or lead to the experience of chronic stress. One good way to gauge whether or not an activity is worth your time is to pay attention to how the thought of it makes you feel. Do you feel excited at the thought? Is it a “want to” activity, or a “have to” activity? Be sure your “want to” activities are all things you really do want to do, and your “have to” activities are all absolutely necessary. (Read this article for more ideas on how to get good stress into your life, and this one on setting priorities and creating or tweaking a life plan.)
How Good Stress Can Become Bad Stress
I’ve alluded to it twice already: good stress can become bad for you if you experience too much of it. (Adrenaline junkies know this firsthand.) This is because your stress response is triggered either way, and if you’re adding that to chronic stress, or several other stressors, there is still a cumulative effect: lots of stress! That’s why it’s important to be in tune with yourself and be able to tell when you’ve had too much. (See this article for more on how to tell if you’ve had too much good stress.) You may not be able to eliminate all stress, but there are often ways that you can minimize or avoid some of the stress in your life, and this can make it easier to handle the rest. Particularly if you can avoid the most taxing forms of stress, you’ll have more resilience against the types of stress in your life that are unavoidable.
How Bad Stress Can Become Good Stress
Not all forms of bad stress can become good stress, but it is possible to change your perception of some of the stressors in your life, and this shift in perception can change your experience of stress! This is because the body’s stress response reacts strongly to perceived threats; if you don’t perceive something as a threat, there is generally no threat-based stress response. (Read more here about stress response.) If you perceive something as a challenge, the fear your would normally experience may turn into excitement and anticipation, or at least steeled resolve. (See this for more on perceiving threat vs. challenge.) You can often make the shift in perception by focusing on resources, seeing the hidden potential benefits of a situation, and reminding yourself of your strengths. Getting into the habit of thinking like an optimist can also help. Once you are in the practice of looking at things as challenges more often, it becomes more automatic.
Overall, it’s important to have good stress in your life. By making the effort to cut out as much chronic stress as possible, changing your perception of stress where you can, and adding some positive activities in the mix to promote eustress, you can create a nice balance of good stress in your life.