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The upside of stress

Discover how stress can actually be a good thing.

Do we stress too much about stress? We’re bombarded with messages like “Don’t stress” and “Relax.” Most times, stress is seen as something that should be beaten and busted. But what if stress isn’t always bad? Read on to discover how stress can actually be a good thing.

Stress 101

So what is stress, really? According to the American Institute of Stress, the term “stress” was coined by Hans Selye, who is considered the father of stress research. He defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.”

“Stress is a survival mechanism,” explains Renee Jain, an anxiety relief expert and life coach.

It’s an automatic reaction dating back to our prehistoric ancestors that warned of physical threats, such as being eaten alive. It’s called the fight-or-flight response. When faced with danger, a physiological reaction occurs: Our bodies produce hormones, resulting in increased heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. And, although we no longer face the predators our ancient relatives did, stress is still a part of our lives.

Recent science shows that stress can actually be a positive force. Studies have proven we can reduce many of stress’s associated health hazards simply by understanding that it isn’t always a bad thing.

Stress can be broken into two categories: distress and eustress. Distress is the bad stress that can negatively affect our thoughts, motivations and even our physical well-being. Eustress, on the other hand, is good stress. It helps motivate us and can improve our performance. Consider how stress can empower you to tackle a big project at work or excel in a baseball game or marathon.

"We need to adopt a more balanced view of stress," says Jain. She likes the definition used by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., a Stanford University health psychologist and lecturer who wrote The Upside of Stress.

"Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake."

– Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., author of The Upside of Stress

When stress is helpful

“When we are stressed, it helps us to focus,” says Eric Karpinski, who co-created a program called ReThink Stress with top positive psychology researchers Shawn Achor and Alia Crum. “It can help us achieve goals. It can help us move ahead,” says Karpinski.

Their research study shows that stress can boost productivity. Achor and Crum took employees from an investment bank and split them into three groups. The first group watched a video explaining that stress can be positive. The second group watched a video explaining that stress can be damaging. The third group wasn’t shown a video.

Karpinski explains that the first group showed a significant increase in productivity and a decrease in stress-related physical symptoms.

Researchers at University of California, Berkeley, examined how short-lived stress can improve the brain’s performance. They discovered that lab rats’ brain stem cells grow into new nerve cells when the rats are put into a stressful situation, improving their mental function.

A 2012 Stanford University School of Medicine study found that stress may even strengthen our immune systems.

So how can we best manage stress?

Think positive and acknowledge it

Fuentes believes we have to make a shift in how failure is treated during childhood. “Right upfront, there’s a problem with our education system. We put fear into people about being wrong,” he says. “If we don’t engender in young kids this notion that it’s okay to fail, then we create a problem because as you age and enter the workforce, you’re going to be hit with a lot of failure. And if you don’t have the coping mechanisms to deal with that, it can be pretty serious.” Achor and Crum’s research isn’t the only study showing a person can lessen stress’s negative effects by simply acknowledging it’s not always bad.

Karpinski points to research conducted by Harvard scientists. One group of participants was told beforehand that stress isn’t all bad. The other group was told nothing. The participants in the first group had a healthier cardiovascular response.

Another study published in 2012, which examined 30,000 people over eight years, found that stress only negatively affects the health of those who believe it’s harmful.

Adopting the right mindset about stress is paramount, Jain says. “This is the key to using stress to your advantage.”

“We spend so much energy trying to avoid stress or trying to pretend it is not there,” Karpinski says. “We can choose how we respond instead of being on autopilot. That’s one of the most powerful things we can do.”

Jain suggests taking a minute to “say hello” to your stressful thoughts, keeping in mind it’s OK to be uncomfortable. “The goal is not to eliminate stress,” she says. “It’s a survival mechanism. Why would we want to get rid of it?”

Take a breather

Despite its positives, too much stress can still be a bad thing. “They didn’t make this stuff up that stress can be negative,” Karpinksi says.

Stress is in negative territory when it becomes disruptive or chronic, Jain says.

What should you do when you start to feel overwhelmed? There’s no one-size-fits-all magic pill to de-stress, Jain explains, but she suggests deep breathing and mindfulness tactics.

This approach is not only effective, she says, “It’s fast, it’s free and it’s accessible at any time.”