What’s The Difference Between Good And Bad Stress?

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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 rap.

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 edge of what I thought I was capable of?

Good Stress Versus Bad Stress

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

Good stress, eustress, or healthy stress is the type of stress that excites you, motivates you, makes you stronger and better. Good stress carries a positive vibe, is rewarding, and is aligned with your values and goals.

Some examples of healthy stress are:

  • Asking someone to marry you
  • Preparing for a presentation
  • Solving a problem that’s meaningful to you
  • 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
  • Performing on stage
  • Trying out a new recipe for your in-laws
  • Completing a thesis

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

It’s discouraging, tears you down, makes you feel small, pains and harms you, and makes you feel sadness, anger, rage, resentment, helplessness, and despair. It’s got all kinds of negative vibes and does not have your best interests at heart.

Some examples of unhealthy stress are:

  • Working in a toxic environment where people undermine and gaslight each other
  • Interacting daily with your mercurial or aggressive boss
  • Socializing with “frenemies” that gossip, bully, or backstab each other
  • Living with a verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive partner
  • Experiencing harassment, discrimination, or assault
  • Keeping negative emotions bottled up
  • Living with a loud inner critic or unhelpful thoughts
  • Living a lifestyle that doesn’t promote physical, emotional, mental or spiritual wellbeing
  • 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 three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. 

Or in modern-day terms, I call the three 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 well-being. 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 stress versus bad stress, keep tabs on short-term stress versus 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 that 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 doesn’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, and 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 humans, these same things might also scare you a little at times. 

Because on the other side of a full life are 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 fill yourself up with life and vitality like a video game character.

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 Versus 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 judgment. 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 stress 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

Consider sharing this article if you benefited from it.