Good Stress vs. Bad Stress

How to Tell the Difference and Why It Matters

The term “stress” has a negative connotation. Though its simplest definition is to apply pressure or tension, we tend to view any type of stressor as a bad thing.  We’ve already touched upon different types of stress and came to this conclusion: stress in and of itself is not necessarily negative. Like so many things in life, stress in moderation is beneficial.

For instance: lifting weights puts stress on your muscles, causing tiny tears within your muscle tissue. The body reacts accordingly, sending proteins to the damaged areas, building muscle and making you stronger over time.  However, apply too much stress, you could seriously injure your muscle. That’s why when you start a weight-lifting regime. It’s best to begin with small weights and work up to heavier ones, increasing the stress on your body over time.

Anxiety, worry, fear: these are emotional responses to stressors.  We get anxious when faced with a looming deadline. A needy family member fills us with worry. A lack of adequate or steady income causes fear. When we perceive these stressors in our lives, our body physically reacts.  Just like proteins help to heal damaged muscles, the body releases chemicals to help us respond to stressors.

Symptoms of stress responses include increased heart rate, faster breathing, tightened muscles, and increased blood pressure.  These symptoms are safety mechanisms, and are the same “fight-or-flight” responses a cornered animal experiences in the wild.  Without this rush of chemicals and their subsequent symptoms, we wouldn’t have any physical reaction to the stressors in our lives.  There would be no push to meet deadlines, no motivation to increase your income, no desire to mend relationships.  You wouldn’t run or try to protect yourself when cornered by an angry dog.  Responding to stress is necessary to having a productive, healthy life.

However, if you feel like stress is constant, that means you’re living with the above-mentioned symptoms on a longer-term basis, which can wreak havoc on your physical and mental health.  High blood pressure can cause strokes and heart attacks.  Anxiety can cause insomnia, upset stomach, and sore muscles.  Constant worry can lead to emotional symptoms like low self-esteem, depression, and agitation.  Small amounts of stress motivate; large amounts of stress can be crippling.

How can you tell the difference between the two?  Sometimes, the lines between good and bad stress blur according to a person’s unique disposition.  Sometimes, we don’t realize that some stressors affect us differently than others.  One person may have no problem planning for a deadline accordingly while another may have trouble managing their time wisely, yielding instead to procrastination and sleepless nights.

Here’s how to manage both the good and bad stress in your life.

  1. Pinpoint the stressors that cause negative emotional reactions. What things in your life cause your stomach to tie in knots? Talking to your mother-in-law on the phone? Disciplining your teenager? Driving in bad weather? Take a week and write down the stressors that cause you anxiety.

  2. Change what you have the power to change. If you can change negative circumstances, find a way to do so. Cut negativity out of your life wherever possible. Ask for help when necessary.

  3. Learn how to manage the bad stress you can’t control. For some, this might mean cognitive therapy. We have already touched on a myriad of other ways to help mitigate stress, including diet, exercise, and meditation. You may not be able to cut annoying relatives out of your life forever, but there are healthy ways to respond to them.

Appreciate stress for what it is. The body’s response to stress is a built-in safety feature. It keeps us disciplined, motivated, and protected. Teaching yourself to respond to stressors in healthy ways will help you become emotionally strong. Instead of avoiding a stressor entirely, exposing yourself to it a little at a time will increase your resolve, and decrease your symptoms of anxiety, fear, and worry. Yes, it’s like how muscles are strengthened when forced to lift heavy weights. Learning to manage stress, in all its forms, will help you live a richer, more fulfilling life.