Using Good Stress to Challenge Yourself and Get Things Done

Stressed man on phone

How to Let Go of Bad Stress and Use Good Stress

Let’s get over the myth that all stress is bad. A moderate degree of stress is natural. It’s what nudges us to get stuff done.

“Stress is really just our body’s response to a challenge,” says Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. In his article in The New York Times, “The Stress Sweet Spot,” Friedman says, “The key to good stress is that the challenge be something you can manage and even master.”

You have to get your kids to school and get yourself to work on time, so you plan. You get clothes and lunches ready the night before. That little bit of stress and doing what you must to eliminate it will keep you out of chaos. If you don’t respond to the stress of your family’s necessary schedule, you can slip into morning chaos and that’s negative stress on you and your children.

Whatever kind of work you do, you get the job done. That’s responding to the positive stress of accomplishing what your supervisor needs you to do. If you get fired, you’re going to have a lot of negative long-term stress, the kind that can lead to physical and emotional problems.

The key is to identify good stress and use it to make your life better. The other important factor is to minimize bad stress, as much as possible.

One serious consideration is the impact of continued stress on children and the potentially damaging impact it can have on their developing minds and bodies.

Identifying Bad Stress

Researchers have found that the element of “control” is a factor in stress. Situations that are out of our control, especially troubling issues like illness, loss of a job or a sudden financial crisis, cause negative stress. The key to reducing the negative impact is to find ways to make it more manageable.

Some level of stress promotes resilience. One clue comes from research showing that when people felt in control of a difficult situation, whether they were actually right about being in control or not, they were less impaired by stress than those who felt out of control.

Stanford University psychologist Alia Crum conducted research that demonstrated that if you “…adjust your mindset about stress…” you can impact your emotional and biological response. The researchers found that students who had a positive view of giving a speech and appreciated feedback had less stress than the students who had a nearly debilitating fear of public speaking.

The Destructive Effect of Continued Stress on Children

When humans are under acute stress, their bodies secrete the hormones cortisol and adrenaline to help them respond to the demands of the situation. A burst of cortisol mobilizes glucose for energy and stimulates the immune system, while adrenaline increases attention.

But chronic stress, when adrenaline and cortisol levels are persistently elevated, as they are for children growing up in neglectful or abusive circumstances, can lead to health problems like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure, while also impairing cognitive abilities.

Research published in the journal Nature found that “…anxiety disorders, depressive illness, hostile and aggressive states, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder…” can produce an overload of brain chemicals that respond to stress, and that imbalance, in some cases, can lead to “an atrophy of brain structures.”

A disturbing conclusion from that research is “…that there is growing evidence that depressive illness and hostility are both associated with cardiovascular disease and other systemic disorders. A major risk factor for these conditions is early childhood experiences of abuse and neglect…” The overload of brain chemicals from this chronic childhood stress can lead individuals into “…social isolation, hostility, depression, and conditions like extreme obesity and cardiovascular disease…” later in life.

3 Ways to Minimize Bad Stress and Use Good Stress

University of California Associate Professor Daniela Kaufer studies the biology of stress. In an article in Greater Good Magazine Kaufer says understanding ways to minimize harmful stress leads to better physical and emotional health. Here are some of her suggestions:

  1. Have a Positive Attitude: That doesn’t mean be unrealistic or live in a fantasy world. It means developing an inner sense that you can get through rough times. Do your best to avoid thinking of a troubling situation as “catastrophic” and remember that others have found ways to get through them. Of course, troubles that rattle our lives are not welcome, but learning to see the bigger picture and having a survivor’s perspective can at least keep the negative stress from knocking you down. That’s important, so you can take steps to deal with the situation and look toward regaining balance in your life.
  2. Develop a Support Network: Social support helps buffer the impact of negative stress. If you have friends and family you can turn to during a stressful period, you’re more likely to handle the stress well. Researchers have identified the hormone oxytocin as a factor that reduces the stress response. Oxytocin is enhanced by social contact and support.
  3. Do Exercise that You Enjoy: People who are active respond better when stress comes along than people who are inactive. Physical activity after a stressful experience also helps moderate the effects of stress. Don’t add stress by thinking you have to jump into a major gym workout to get the benefits of stress reduction. Think of exercise as “activity” that you enjoy.
    • Walk with a friend or alone in a park.
    • Notice trees and birds.
    • Walk your dog or walk with a neighbor who has a dog.
    • Swim if you have access to a lake, a pool or even better, the ocean.
    • Play tennis if you enjoy it.
    • Plant flowers or vegetables and spend time connecting to the earth. Research has shown that gardening can be a positive factor in healing mental health disorders.
    • Take a yoga class. You don’t need to twist yourself into a pretzel. Find a beginner class if you’re new to yoga, or even a specialized yoga class with accommodations for physical or medical limitations.

    There’s wisdom in this common saying: “What’s the best exercise? The kind you do.” So find exercise you enjoy and let it help you minimize stress and keep your life in balance.

References

Friedman, Richard A., “The Stress Sweet Spot,” The New York Times, June 1, 2018

Kaufer, Daniela, “The Surprising Benefits of Stress,” Greater Good Magazine, Oct. 20, 2015

McEwen, Bruce S., “Allostasis and Allostatic Load: Implications for Neuropsychopharmacology,” Nature, February 2000

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