Good and Bad Stress: Stress Part 1
What if being stress-free wasn’t the goal but learning how to manage and steward it was?
Stress is a universal human experience. It’s absolutely inevitable. We all encounter it whether we realize it or not. You can even argue it’s one of the first things we express when we’re born. That baby is crying because it’s stressed out!
There’s a major emphasis on decreasing stress in our society. Stress is seen as a major player in declining the physical, mental, and emotional health of our culture. It even impacts our relational and financial well-being as it affects our decisions, reactions, and responses.
But it may surprise you to know that stress is not inherently bad. We need it.
With such a negative reputation, how can a clinical psychologist make such a claim?
Well, let’s first talk about stress. What is stress?
From the American Psychological Association dictionary, stress is “the physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors. Stress involves changes affecting nearly every system of the body, influencing how people feel and behave.” https://dictionary.apa.org/stress
And a stressor is “any event, force, or condition that… requires adjustment” https://dictionary.apa.org/stressor.
Simply put, stress is the soul and body’s response to changes in our environment and circumstances.
As you can see, that’s a very neutral definition of stress. There’s nothing wrong with our body responding to change. As a matter of fact, it’s unavoidable and natural. It’s normal and a part of life.
So why is it that stress gets such a bad rap? Well, that’s because when we usually talk about stress on a popular day-to-day level, we’re actually talking about what’s called distress in the world of psychology. We give stress the connotation of anxiety and worry, but technically that’s not necessary. And not only is that necessary, but it actually overlooks a form of positive stress called eustress.
Let’s talk about eustress and distress.
Eustress vs. Distress
Eustress is “the positive stress response, involving optimal levels of stimulation: a type of stress that results from challenging but attainable and enjoyable or worthwhile tasks (e.g., participating in an athletic event, giving a speech). It has a beneficial effect by generating a sense of fulfillment or achievement and facilitating growth, development, mastery, and high levels of performance.” https://dictionary.apa.org/eustress
I know for many, this can be a completely foreign idea that there is, in fact, a type of stress that is positive, but it’s true. Imagine if I asked, “Do you want a sense of fulfillment or achievement? Do you want to facilitate growth, development, and mastery? Do you want to achieve high levels of performance?” You would think I was about to offer you a miracle medication or some profound secret of life.
Instead, I say, “Well, then you may need some stress!”
You’d probably want your money back from that counseling session! I get it.
Now before you think I’m advocating for more stress as the secret to your best life, let’s talk about distress.
Distress is the “negative stress response, often involving negative affect and physiological reactivity: a type of stress that results from being overwhelmed by demands, losses, or perceived threats. It has a detrimental effect by generating physical and psychological maladaptation and posing serious health risks for individuals.” https://dictionary.apa.org/distress
As you can see, this is typically what people have in mind when they talk about stress, and it’s certainly not good at all! I absolutely agree that this should be avoided as much as possible.
However, I want to show you that this idea of being “stress-free” isn’t the goal of life. Not only is it impossible, but it’s also not ideal.
How to Identify Good and Bad Stress
With this being the case, it’s important that we learn to identify and embrace eustress while identifying and minimizing unnecessary distress.
Consider the following to help you navigate the two.
1 - Be aware that not all stress is bad.
2 - Reflect on the outcome of different stressful situations in your past.
3 - Intentionally build eustress into goals you’re trying to achieve.
4 - Prevent distress by being proactive and creating boundaries.
If you want to learn more about dealing with stress, check out this teaching I gave at Rock City Church with Pastor Chad Fisher.