Not All Stress Is Bad — Here’s the Difference, According to Psychologists

woman relaxing at work

Adobe Stock / Africa Studio

Profile Picture

It’s official: Americans are among the most stressed-out people in the world, according to new 2018 data from Gallup. Stress rates are only increasing, especially for women — but not all stress has to be bad. When approached correctly, it’s possible for stress to actually be a positive force in our lives.

What is a good stress?

The American Institute of Stress defines “good stress,” or eustress, as “stress in daily life that has positive connotations such as: marriage, promotion, babies, winning money, new friends, and graduation.” During important life moments such as these, our physical, physiological and biochemical responses are in a heightened state, not dissimilar to the responses our bodies produce when we experience negative stressors. 

Think about the last time you were intensely excited about something, or about how you would feel if you were to, say, meet your favorite band or win a job you’ve been pining for. Would your heart rate increase? Perhaps you would feel a little manic and have trouble staying still, or maybe your stomach would feel nauseous. Despite the fact that something objectively positive has happened to you, your body is thrown from its typical homeostasis, and the result is a state of stress that can be felt mentally, emotionally, and physically. And yet, it isn’t a form of stress that you should wish to be rid of, like the more negative types (including chronic stress) indicated by Gallup’s data. Good stress is instead a sign that you are having meaningful experiences, putting you on track for a well-lived life.

What are the positive effects of stress?

Good stress or eustress is, objectively, a positive thing. But even traditionally “bad stress” can yield positive outcomes if viewed the right way. Take acute stress, for example. The American Institute of Stress defines acute stress as the body’s “fight or flight” state, which is triggered by an influx of the body’s stress hormone, cortisol. It can take the body about 90 minutes to metabolically restabilize once the acute stressor is removed. Firdaus Dhabhar, a professor of psychology at University of Miami Health System, said he’s seen this type of stress carry with it multiple positive benefits. 

“Acute or short-term stress can have protective and beneficial effects,” he told Stanford Medicine. “We have shown that when short-term stress is coupled with immune activation — for example, during surgery or vaccination — the immune response is enhanced. The beneficial effects of short-term stress make sense because the fight-or-flight stress response is nature’s fundamental survival system.”

Beyond physiologically protective elements, stress has also been linked to positive cognitive benefits, from sharper focus to enhanced memory retention.

“Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance,” Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, told Berkeley News. In order to prove this, she and her team conducted studies on rats and found that significant but brief stressful events caused stem cells in the rats’ brains to multiply into new cells that, when tested later, showed improved mental performance. 

“I think intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert,” she said.

Now that we’ve looked at the positive effects stress can have, what are some additional situations that can lead to each kind of stress, both good and bad?

Examples of good stress:

  • Traveling to a new country where your language isn’t spoken

  • Falling in love 

  • Moving to a different city 

  • Getting over a fear

  • Speaking up about something you believe in

  • Learning a new hobby

  • Riding a rollercoaster

Examples of bad stress:

  • Working hard to meet an unreasonable deadline

  • Breaking up with a significant other

  • Sustaining an injury

  • Losing a job

  • Taking an exam you feel you’ll fail

  • Having an argument with a close friend

  • Dealing with a poor financial decision

The difference between good stress and bad stress?

Psychologists typically lump stress into two camps to denote its positive and negative iterations. Eustress, as mentioned earlier, is good stress that ultimately inspires, motivates, and enhances your life. Significantly, this type of stress is usually the product of a choice — like getting engaged or going skydiving for the first time — and thus, the stress that is involved tends to feel more worthwhile and even empowering. In contrast, bad stress, or distress, elicits feelings of powerlessness. It’s the type of stress that wears you down, tires you out, and wreaks lastingly negative havoc on your health, like weakened immune systems and impaired memory.

One of the biggest differences separating these two camps of stress is the length of time a stressor is experienced. Even good stress can shift over into bad stress if it’s extended — for example, a rollercoaster may feel thrilling for a few minutes, but to ride one without pause for hours would likely have a negative impact on your nerves, as well as your overall sense of physical well-being. Acute stress, with its beneficial impact on memory and cognition, is defined as a brief interlude of heightened responses, followed by a readjustment period generally not exceeding 90 minutes in which your body returns to normal. When the sensation of acute stress continues past the point of “brief,” though, that’s when stress can become chronic. And not only does chronic stress take a toll on your physical health, it can also lead to a whole host of other problems like disrupted sleep patterns, increased irritability, lower performance at work, negative thought patterns, and depression.

How to turn bad stress into good

But just as good stress can become bad stress, the opposite also holds true. What ultimately defines an experience of stress as either good or bad is how the stressee feels about it. Much of this has to do with our thought patterns, and consciously promoting any patterns that are optimistic while stymying those that are pessimistic means you’ll have more eustress in your life than the alternative. Reminding yourself of the potential benefits of a situation you’re inclined to feel hostile toward is a great place to start. For instance, losing a job is something most people would objectively classify as a negative experience, and as such, the type of stress it begets becomes negative. But what if losing that job is actually freeing you from some component of your life you were dissatisfied with? What new opportunities are being unlocked that you may not have considered had your employment status remained the same?

After all, the body’s response to stress is based largely on what is perceived as a threat. By making a conscious effort to shift your perception from threat- to opportunity-oriented, you’ll gain greater control over the type of stress you experience as a result.

Don’t miss out on articles like these. Sign up!