Do you consider stress good? Bad? Or both good and bad?

I have been asking this question a lot lately and have found that I always get mixed responses. My aim for this post is to try and explain to you why the answer is both.

With a global pandemic looming over our heads, stress is almost unavoidable these days. In fact, the Black Dog Institute estimates that between 25 and 33 per cent of Australians are currently experiencing significant anxiety and distress. Coronavirus aside, some amount of stress is a normal part of living. The amount of stress we experience will have both positive and negative effects. Yet how we view stress also has an impact on us, as it can shape the way we think, feel and act, which in turn affects our health and wellbeing.

What is stress?

Stress is when your heart pounds, your breathing fastens, and your palms begin to sweat. It arises when something we care about is at stake. When we perceive a threat, our body releases cortisol, which triggers a fight, flight or freeze response. This survival instinct, that our ancestors developed many years ago, is designed to help us act quickly to protect something or ourselves.

There are generally two types of stress:

  1. Distress – a feeling of extreme worry, sadness or pain; a situation in which you are suffering or are in great danger and therefore in urgent need of help.
  2. Eustress – beneficial stress either psychological, physical (e.g. exercise), or biochemical.

So, stress can be both good and bad. Yet its effects can also be determined by how much stress we experience.

What is the right amount of stress?

We know that too much or too little of anything can sometimes be bad for us, and the same can be said for stress. Have a look at the pressure and performance curve below that shows the amount of stress we should experience for optimal performance (it is above average). What it also shows is that too much pressure will result in lower performance, and can also lead to strain, overwhelm and in the worst case burnout. What’s more, at the other end of the spectrum, we see too little pressure resulting in boredom.

Source: Williams, 1994

What are the other positive effects of stress?

So far, we have uncovered that stress can help us perform at our optimum level.

Through studies, researchers have also uncovered that stress (the acute, short-term or moderate type) can have further positive effects on our minds and bodies including:

  • Lowering the risk of death
  • Producing neurons that may improve performance
  • Strengthening the immune system
  • Making you more social
  • Improving learning
  • Improving memory
  • Helping connect with your instincts.

You can find more detail on these studies here.

How can we harness these positive effects?

We know from these studies that stress can enhance our performance and wellbeing rather than debilitating it, so what we need to try and do is befriend stress.

Dr. Kelly McGonigal is a health psychologist, who has researched stress and has found that fears about stress, rather than the stress itself, is often what leads to problems. As in, stress may only be bad for us if we believe this is the case.

McGonigal explains her findings in her popular TedTalk “How to make stress your friend”, in which she encourages us to adopt a “stress mindset” and see stress as a positive that should be capitalised upon. McGonigal outlines that stress is designed to provide us with the energy, courage and confidence we need to deal with whatever is at stake.

How to make stress your friend

Alison Earl is an Australian behaviour change expert and suggests a ROAR approach to change our response to stress so that it can be enhancing, as follows:

  1. Recognise stress
  2. Own the stress by reminding yourself it relates to something you care about
  3. Activate the energy the stress provides to take action
  4. Recharge from stress (some ways to do this are outlined here).

Whilst we won’t ever be able to eliminate stress completely from our lives, we can get better at it by understanding, accepting and leveraging it. By adopting a stress mindset and having a more balanced approach to stress, we can use it to improve our performance, health and wellbeing.