A woman suffering from bad stress and good stress as she faces piles of paperwork.

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What’s the difference between bad stress and good stress? Can stress actually be beneficial?

Stress is usually interpreted as being a nuisance in a person’s life, as it can cause burnout and has negative cognitive effects. While this is sometimes true, stress can also help you in demanding situations, promote personal growth, increase confidence, and more.

Take a look at the effects of bad stress and good stress, and how to deal with each type.

Bad Stress

Stress can lead to many problems if not managed correctly. The difference between bad stress and good stress is that the good kind is manageable, but the bad kind is overwhelming. It can get so bad that victims perform terribly under stress and don’t know how to function.

Below are a few disadvantages of stress, and how you can deal with them.

Hurts the Brain

In Brain Rules, John Medina discusses the negative cognitive effects that chronic stress can cause. Long-term stress can be particularly harmful to memory and your ability to solve problems. 

  • Effects on memory. Chronic stress can degrade memory because it sends excessive amounts of cortisol to the hippocampus, which can disconnect neural networks. This causes memory loss and can prevent new cells from being created—and thus hurt your ability to form new memories. 
  • Effects on learning. Because of its profound effects on memory, chronic stress can severely hinder learning. Studies show that adults with chronic stress perform worse than low-stress adults on tests related to memory, math, language, focus, and the ability to use pre-existing knowledge to solve new problems. Chronic stress can also contribute to clinical depression, which harms many important cognitive functions. These include not only memory and language, already established to be harmed by stress, but also spatial awareness, problem-solving & abstract reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. 
  • Physiological effects of stress. Medina argues that the physiological effects of stress, including cardiovascular disease and immune system problems, can affect our ability to learn at school or to perform at work. Those who suffer physical symptoms of stress, especially those whose immune systems are weakened, may need to take more time off from work or school than a low-stress person. Their ability to keep up with class material, or effectively fulfill the requirements of their job, would then be lessened. In this sense, physiological symptoms of stress can also set us back cognitively.

Causes Burnout in Women

In Burnout, Emily and Amelia Nagoski explain that burnout is the result of a stress overload that leaves you with feelings of inadequacy and futility—you’re exhausted, you stop caring, and you struggle to connect with others. The things that cause us stress are called stressors, and the first step to preventing burnout is to identify these stressors.

The authors elaborate that for women, most burnout-inducing stressors are the result of living in a patriarchal society in which boys are raised to be dominant takers and girls are raised to be submissive supporters. Supporters are expected to always be mild-mannered, humble, pretty, and willing to give their time, attention, affection, and bodies to the people who need them. This is a moral obligation that most women experience, and a standard that many men expect of women, but it’s completely unrealistic for any human to live up to.

The situations these standards give rise to and the pressures they create for women are constant stressors and the root cause of female burnout.

Pressure to Take on Extra Work

The authors explain that in many cases, patriarchal societies expect women to overexert themselves, and this unrealistic expectation is a major stressor. They add that women spend 50% more time than men on unpaid labor, even in the most balanced nations, because they’re often expected to take care of domestic work, like child care, cleaning, cooking, and so on, as a “second shift” when they get home from work. When women don’t meet these unrealistic expectations, they fear being seen as a bad partner or mother and experience self-doubt—yet another stressor.

Pressure to Meet Unrealistic Body Standards

The authors explain that the pressure to meet unrealistic body standards and the self-doubt it causes are two more stressors that come from the patriarchy. The female beauty standard—for example, being skinny yet voluptuous and having a tiny nose but large eyes and lips—describes an uncommon appearance that’s unrealistic for the majority of women. However, our culture makes this appearance seem normal—it’s broadcast throughout television, social media, magazines, and endless advertisements for diet plans, pills and potions, and even surgeries. 

Further, the pressure to meet these standards and the self-doubt that arises when they can’t cause nearly all women to engage in some kind of weight control, which gives rise to more stress. When these attempts to meet unrealistic standards become futile, almost 50% of women engage in unhealthy weight control like bulimia, anorexia, or taking toxic supplements. This can cause major mental and physical health issues, another source of stress.

Makes You Weak to Temptation

It’s human nature to be filled with desire, and if we have long-term goals we want to achieve, we need to spend a lot of time and energy reining in that desire. But willpower has a tendency to sag when our lives aren’t going perfectly. After a terrible day at the office and an argument with your boss, accessing your willpower can seem impossible. The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal says that when you’re stressed, you are far more vulnerable to temptation. 

Stress Makes Us Give In

Nothing weakens our willpower more than stress. It makes us give in to short-term impulses without any thought for the future. By reducing our daily stress, we can put ourselves in the best position to stop giving in and start having more control over our actions. 

According to the American Psychological Association, the best ways to relieve stress are exercising or playing a sport, praying, reading, listening to music, getting a massage, meditating or doing yoga, spending time outdoors, or spending time with friends or family. These methods actually boost the “happy chemicals” in your brain and diminish the stress response

The worst ways to relieve stress are the strategies that promise a reward but don’t actually deliver it—smoking, drinking, gambling, eating, shopping, playing video games, binge-watching movies or TV, and surfing the Internet. 

Good Stress

In contrast to the traditional negative view of stress, Kelly McGonigal, the author of The Upside of Stress, says modern research reveals you actually have a variety of stress responses that help you survive life-threatening situations, feel confident to overcome challenges, and connect with others to cope with life’s difficulties. Thus, McGonigal argues that stress isn’t an irrelevant relic of our ancestral past, but a useful resource to be appreciated and utilized. 

McGonigal defines stress broadly, as your response when something valuable to you is at risk. This could be your response to an immediate, life-threatening situation, or to meeting your partner’s parents for the first time. To understand the difference between bad stress and good stress, we’ll discuss the latter’s benefits below.

Creates a Fight-or-Flight Response

Bad stress and good stress responses can both occur when you perceive your life to be in danger. How you use your stress determines if it’ll help you in a threatening situation. For example, you’re felling a large tree in your yard and when you step back to watch the trunk tip away from you, you notice it’s starting to lean in your direction. Your body surges with energy and you leap clear of the crashing branches.

When your life’s on the line, fight-or-flight equips you for survival in a variety of ways:

  • Your body releases hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and dopamine to create and distribute more energy, motivate action, and increase your focus on an immediate threat.
  • Your body releases excess stores of sugar and fat into the bloodstream for energy.
  • You breathe harder and your heart starts racing to deliver oxygen, sugar, and fat more efficiently to your muscles.
  • You slow or disable processes like digestion and growth that aren’t necessary for surviving an immediate threat.
  • Your blood vessels constrict and inflammation increases in anticipation of injuries that will need repair.
  • This stress response makes you more aware of and reactive to similar triggers in the future.

In all these ways, fight-or-flight gives you energy and motivation, and it helps you repair injuries to survive immediate threats at a moment’s notice.

Creates a Tend-and-Befriend Response

This stress response occurs when you perceive that a person or community you care about needs help. For example, you’re concerned for the mental health of a friend as they process a break-up, so you drive an hour through the night to comfort them in person. Likewise, this response can be triggered by your own need for support.

A tend-and-befriend response triggers the release of the social hormone, oxytocin, which makes you more courageous, empathetic, and trusting of others. 

One study found that participants who watched their loved ones experience pain from electric zaps felt less afraid and more empathetic if they held their loved one’s hand during the test.  

Oxytocin also nullifies the negative health effects caused by extreme, traumatic events or chronic fight-or-flight. One study found that oxytocin released during a stress response protected rats from heart damage during chemically induced heart attacks. The heart attacks only occurred when the rats were given a drug that inhibited oxytocin. 

Helps You Grow

Peak Performance by Brad Sulberg and Steve Magness explains that a combination of stress and rest is essential for growth. They provide three recommendations for incorporating stress in order to grow: Partake in challenges at the edge of your comfort zone, focus intensely during bouts of stress, and undergo short periods of stress. 

Strategy #1: Partake in Challenges at the Edge of Your Comfort Zone

Stulberg and Magness argue that challenges that push us out of our comfort zone—without making us lose control—are a crucial type of stress. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, these challenges strike a perfect balance between stress that’s too strenuous and stress that’s not strenuous enough. Tasks that are too easy, Stulberg and Magness point out, aren’t challenging enough to stimulate growth, while tasks that are too difficult prevent us from focusing and thus hinder our growth.

Strategy #2: Focus Intensely During Stress

Stulberg and Magness report that experiments from behavioral scientist K. Anders Ericsson confirm that intense focus is essential to optimize our training. For instance, in one experiment, Ericsson examined the practice schedules of expert violinists at the Global Music Academy in Berlin. He found that, though all the violinists practiced for roughly the same amount of time, they spent that time differently—the truly elite violinists practiced with singular focus, whereas the more “average” violinists tended to practice inefficiently because of distractions. 

Strategy #3: Use Short Periods of Stress

Stulberg and Magness emphasize that periods of focused training shouldn’t last indefinitely. On the contrary, they argue that stress should occur in short periods lasting around an hour. In addition to Ericsson’s own research, which found that top performers generally work in 60- to 90-minute bursts, Stulberg and Magness cite findings from the Draugiem Group, a social networking company that examined its most successful employees. The group found that on average, its best employees spent 52 minutes working intensely before taking a 17-minute break. In a similar vein, Stulberg and Magness report that the most efficient workers in a meat processing plant worked 51 minutes before taking a 9-minute break. 

Wrapping Up

Bad stress and good stress both come in different forms. Stress can initiate your fight-or-flight response, which, depending on how you manage stress, can be helpful or debilitating. Once you change your mindset about stress, you can deal with it more effectively and reap the benefits of it.

What are other ways bad stress and good stress are different? Let us know in the comments below!

The Many Differences Between Bad Stress and Good Stress

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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