When we hear ‘stress’, we may instantly associate it with negative emotions. However, a degree of stress is necessary to reach our goals. Without a healthy amount of stress, it’s unlikely we would be motivated to revise for exams, work to meet deadlines or get an adrenaline boost before a presentation.
However, despite, the advantages of stress, there is a fine line between this ‘good’ stress, known as eustress, and unhelpful ‘bad’ stress.
What is good stress?
Positively contextualising stress can offer daily motivation, and small periods of stress can help push you to complete a task and overcome procrastination.
According to psychologist Dr Kelly McGonigal, countries that report a higher stress index also have higher levels of satisfaction, wellbeing and life expectancy. She believes that stress is detrimental to us only if we allow it; reframing stress as a positive experience can minimise the anxiety and unhappiness we may associate with it.
After all, having something to stress about proves that our lives have meaning and we have a future to build.
Moreover, a study on rodents suggests that small bouts of stress can improve the ability to learn and remember by activating the hippocampus.
Eustress may take the form of a typical ‘fight or flight’ response, in which we experience heightened awareness and an energy boost. Our ancient ancestors would have found this short-term stress incredibly useful when faced with a dangerous predator, as the physiological effects would have motivated them to remove the danger.
What is ‘bad’ stress?
Whereas eustress may enable us to complete a task, bad stress does the opposite. When multiple stressors coincide, we become overwhelmed and cannot function properly. Bad stress can be divided into two categories: acute stress and chronic stress.
Acute stress is not itself a negative thing. It refers to an immediate short-lived ‘threat’ or stressor, such as hearing our doorbell or seeing the car in front suddenly brake when we’re driving. Therefore, acute stress may often be eustress because it prompts us to act when our attention is required.
Acute stress becomes bad stress, however, when an event is particularly distressing. Acute stress disorder, associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, usually follows a traumatic event such as the death of a loved one, being the victim of a crime, or experiencing warfare.
Symptoms of ASD include:
- Feelings of emotional detachment
- Difficulty concentrating
- Always feeling tense
Since acute stress disorder is often tied to a particular experience, those who experience it may avoid visual, audial and geographical stimuli that remind them of their trauma.
Chronic stress, rather than being tied to a particular event, is associated with ongoing stressors such as an overly-demanding job or a dysfunctional home life.
Symptoms of chronic stress vary and may be similar to those of ASD:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Appetite changes
- Low self-esteem
- Feeling helpless or out of control
Balance good and bad stress
Psychologists have suggested there is an ideal level of stress for productivity. The Yerkes-Dodson Law proposes that a degree of stress is necessary for optimal performance. Once we pass this point, however, the area of the brain needed for rational thought, the pre-frontal cortex, becomes less effective.
Essentially, balancing good stress and bad stress is a worthy goal because it may enable us to perform better. Try journaling your stressful experiences so far today. Circle all the experiences which were over within minutes or hours.
These were likely moments of ‘good stress’, and they were soon resolved because you acted. If you’re left with lots of uncircled stressors, it’s likely that you may be overwhelmed by bad stress.
How to stop being overwhelmed by stress
By now, we’re aware that eliminating all stress would be a terrible idea. We’d likely have no career, family, or friends. However, if you’re experiencing some ‘bad stress’, there are constructive ways to manage it:
Think like a Stoic
The Stoic philosophers, who lived in Ancient Greece around 2000 years ago, were also concerned with bad stress. Their approach was to identify which stressors are actually worth stressing about.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5-4.5
For example, we can’t control being stuck in traffic. No matter how rapidly we breathe or clench our fists, we won’t move any faster. However, we can control our reactions. Taking a moment to breathe, listening to our favourite radio station or making a phone call (if safe) will likely make us feel much better than wallowing in our frustration.
Move your body
Even just 20 minutes of exercise may have a calming effect on stress levels. This may be because of the boost in feel-good endorphins or simply because it offers us a time-out from our stressors.
If you are able, exercising in nature may offer you an extra benefit. A study found that 20 minutes in a green space or public park can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
A 2013 study measured that participants who had experienced stressful events were able to reduce their risk of stress-related mortality when they helped family and friends.
Even small acts of kindness, like holding a door open for someone or donating items to charity, can help mitigate stress in our daily lives.
Adaptogens such as ashwagandha may help you cope with stress. A placebo-controlled study found that supplementing with ashwagandha root extract can reduce cortisol levels and help improve sleep quality.
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A healthy amount of stress is useful for us – and perhaps even necessary. However, we must manage stressors, or at least our response to them, in order to reduce our risk of acute and chronic stress disorders. If you’re concerned about stress, it’s a good idea to contact a health professional for advice.
You must not rely on the information on this blog as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or therapist. If you have any specific concerns about your mental or physical health, you should consult your doctor and you should not delay seeking medical advice, or treatment for your mental health, because of the information on this blog.