What’s The Difference Between Good And Bad Stress?

What’s The Difference Between Good And Bad Stress?

The stress-response can be more damaging than the stressor itself, especially when the stress is purely psychological. And if you experience every day as an emergency, you will pay the price.

Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky (Professor of Biology & Neurology at Stanford University)

Stress: The Modern-Day Health Epidemic

Stress is predicted by scientists to be the downfall of our modern society.
Over 95% of what doctors treat is either caused or made worse by stress  (Dr. Mark Hyman).

So stress gets a bad rep.

But friends like to point out …

  • What about good stress?
  • What about the stress I need to get me motivated?
  • What about the stress that gets me up in the morning?
  • What about the stress that pushes me to the edges of what I thought I was capable of?
  • What about the stress that I need to not waste away on the couch in front of my TV eating Bon-Bons (do they still sell those?)

Well – I love this topic, so let’s explore.

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress

First, you need to know, there is good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress).

Good stress, eustress, or healthy stress is the type of stress that you experience which excites you, motivates you, makes you stronger, has your best interest at heart, has positive vibes, is rewarding, and is aligned to your values and goals.

Some examples of healthy stress are:

  • Asking someone to marry you
  • Anticipating a piano recital
  • Preparing for a presentation
  • Going for a challenging hike
  • Learning how to drive
  • Gearing up for a race
  • Competing in a sports match
  • Party planning
  • Learning a new dance
  • Trying out a new recipe for your in-laws
  • Completing a thesis

On the other hand, bad stress, distress, or unhealthy stress is prolonged or chronic pressure and tension with no end in sight (read this for more on what stress does to our body).

It’s discouraging, it tears you down, makes you feel small, it pains and harms you, it brings out rage and resentment, it stops you in your tracks, it makes you feel helpless and despair. It’s got all kinds of negative vibes and definitely does not have your best interest at heart.

Some examples of unhealthy stress are:

  • Working in a toxic environment where people undermine, under-appreciated and gaslight each other
  • Interacting with your sociopathic, aggressive boss day after day
  • Losing your job
  • Socializing with catty “frenemies” that rip each other to shreds (or bullying)
  • Living with a verbally, emotionally or physically abusive partner
  • Subject of harassment, discrimination, assault
  • Hoarding negative beliefs and emotions like self-hatred, resentment, guilt, anxiety
  • Unhealthy living – malnutrition, poor diet, exercise, sleep, constant jet-lag
  • Death of a loved one
  • Break up or divorce
  • Living in poverty
  • Sudden hospitalization
  • Managing chronic illness

So now you know that not all stress is created equal.

Does Duration Of Stress Matter?

But the duration of stress is also just as important. 

Father of stress research, Hans Seyles says we (mammals) experience stress in 3 stages: Alarm, Resistance and Exhaustion. 

Or in modern-day terms, I call the 3 stages: Oh Crap, Pushing Through and Burnout (if you like this, read more here). 

The point Seyle makes is that our bodies aren’t built to experience prolonged stress without serious setbacks to our health and wellbeing. If we don’t pump the brakes, eventually we’ll crash and burn. It’s not if, but when

So, in addition to paying attention to good vs. bad stress, keep tabs on short-term vs. long term stress. Generally, it’s the long-term stress that gets the stink-eye. 

For my Type-A, overly ambitious, adrenaline junkies…

Don’t worry. If you genuinely enjoy your “stress” – it’s most likely eustress (or healthy stress) that you’re experiencing. Just make sure the duration of stress is short-term and your adrenal glands are in tip-top shape to handle your “habit.” 

Unless you’ve experienced trauma in the past, most people don’t seek out or enjoy distress (but that’s another topic for another day).

In any case, my point is healthy stress can be good for your growth and expansion while unhealthy stress suppresses your growth and expansion in life. 

Being aware of stress and its harmful effects don’t mean you need to hold back on living a full life.

In fact, I’m advocating that living a full life will build your resilience to stress.

Things like adventure, beauty, nature, movement, stillness, laughter, dance, music, art, travel, connection, learning, growth, productivity, service, self-development, nutrition, exploration, play, creativity, communication, friendships, community, love, family, will help you build your resilience and make you stronger to stress.

Go after what excites you, what you’re curious about, what lights you up.

However, if you’re like most human, these same things might also scare you a little at times. 

Because on the other side of a full life involve things like taking risks, making mistakes, falling, injuries, heartaches, disappointments, fatigue, failure, sickness, stagnation, burnout, guilt, bittersweet nostalgia, broken promises, unfulfilled dreams, regret, despair, anxiety, depression, loneliness, shame, and aging.

The more you live and experience connection and joy, the stronger you become at playing with and handling life’s curveballs and moments of darkness. 

Every time you go after and experience what brings you connection and joy, you refill yourself up like a video game character with life and vitality.

This will help cushion life’s blows.

The bigger the cushion, the more you’re likely to bounce right back and enjoy the game of life! 

Eustress vs. Distress Challenge

Look at the list of life experiences above from both sides of the coin. 

Ask yourself, how much are you experiencing from one side versus the other side? 

No judgement. Just notice. Notice each day and each week. Once you see it, there’s no going back. There’s no convincing you of making a change. You’re going to naturally make adjustments that create the life experience that you want. You really have no choice.

The point isn’t to hide from the stress in your life.

The point is to be able to:

  1. Discern good from bad stress
  2. Spot stress when it’s coming your way
  3. Build you up so that you’re “well-padded” to play with stress


Let me know below if you can relate to this article in any way.

Enroll in the next course to “Escape Stressville” on my website.

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