Making Friends With Stress

Different kinds of stress can actually be good for us - here's how

Young man meditating outdoors
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When you hear the word “stress,” what do you picture? Maybe that overdue report on your desk at work, the phone call from your kid’s school, the fight you had with your partner, the bill you forgot to pay, or your worries about your aging parents.

These are all examples of bad stress. Stress like this can damage your health, your mood, your relationships, and your productivity. It can suck the joy out of life.

 But did you know that some stress can actually be good for you, helping you stay focused, alert, and prepared for challenges?

Not only that but by balancing your stress load, you can make stress work for you rather than against you.

The Bad and the Good

Knowing the difference between good and bad stress will help you decide how to handle it. 

Good stress:

  • is short-lived
  • is infrequent
  • is over quickly (in a matter of minutes or hours)
  • can be part of a positive life experience
  • inspires you to action
  • helps build you up — it leaves you better than you were before.

Exercise is one example of good stress. It might be a bit uncomfortable at first, but as long as you don’t overdo it, you’ll feel better afterward.

In contrast, bad stress:

  • lasts a long time
  • is chronic
  • is ongoing
  • is negative, depressing, and demoralizing
  • de-motivates and paralyzes you
  • breaks you down — it leaves you worse off than you were before.

Imagine you decided to lift weights four hours a day, every day.

That would be bad stress.

The Stress “Sweet Spot”

Since stress affects the mind, body, and behavior in many ways, everyone experiences stress differently. Each of us has a unique “recovery zone,” whether it's physical or psychological, and our recovery zone depends on several factors.

Just as important as the stress itself is how you perceive and respond to it.

 Some people go with the flow and can adapt well to what others would view as highly stressful events. Other people crumble at even the slightest challenge or frustration they encounter.

For now, what you need to know is that if a stressor is too low—not enough to cause a reaction—then nothing will happen. You’ll go along the same as before, no better or worse.

If a stressor is too high—too strong, and/or lasts too long, outpacing your recovery ability—then you’ll eventually break down.

Finally, if the stressor is within your recovery zone—neither too much nor too little, and doesn’t last too long—then you’ll recover from it and get better. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

Making Stress Manageable

Luckily, even if your bad stress outweighs the good, there are many things you can do to help manage the situation.

Here are some activities that will boost your body’s happy chemicals, activate your “rest and digest” nervous system, and start building your stress resilience.

  • go for a walk (especially outside)
  • spend time in the natural world
  • get some sunshine
  • listen to relaxing music
  • practice meditation and mindfulness
  • massage
  • practice deep breathing
  • laugh
  • snuggle with a loved one or pet
  • do some yoga, gentle mobility, and/or slow stretching exercises
  • take a warm bath or go for a gentle swim
  • relax in a sauna
  • have sex (seriously)
  • engage in physical, non-competitive play
  • sip a glass or two of wine or beer (but ensure you keep this to 1-2 drinks for men, and 1 for women, enjoyed slowly and mindfully)
  • drink some green tea

Think of de-stressing as purposefully chasing relaxation. If you do some of these activities regularly, it’s like money in your body’s stress bank. It keeps you insured against future problems.

By the way, some recreational activities don’t count, such as watching TV or movies, playing video games, or surfing the internet. Electronic stimulation, while fun, is still stimulation, so anything involving a screen is out.

Nobody can escape stress. But by paying attention to your overall stress load and aiming to stay open and flexible in response to the world’s demands, you’ll find yourself rising to challenges with energy to spare.

Sources

Chen WQ, et al. Protective effects of green tea polyphenols on cognitive impairments induced by psychological stress in rats. Behav Brain Res. 2009 Aug 24;202(1):71-6.

Emerson, David, and Elizabeth Hopper. Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2011.

Fernandez-Rodriguez, Eva, Paul M. Stewart & Mark S. Cooper. The pituitary–adrenal axis and body composition. Pituitary 12 (2009):105–115 DOI 10.1007/s11102-008-0098-2

Groeneweg, Femke L., et al. Rapid non-genomic effects of corticosteroids and their role in the central stress response. Journal of Endocrinology (2011) 209, 153–167.

Urbanowski F, et al. (July–August 2003). “Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation”. Psychosomatic Medicine 65 (4): 564–570.

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