Can it be that not all stress is bad?

In the world we live, stress is unavoidable. There is so much to do, pressure to do it well and never enough time. A lot of what we read and listen to advocates the avoidance of stress, providing strategies and tactics to reduce and eliminate the beast. However, often this beast is the very reason we triumph in adversity, find innovative solutions to complex problems or have breakthroughs that bring about lifelong change.

Can it be that not all stress is bad?

To answer this question fully we have to look at stress relative to how much, how long and how we perceive it.

In small doses, stress can be beneficial. Research conducted in 2013 at University of California, Berkeley, revealed how acute stress – short-lived, not chronic – improves brain performance. “Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioural and cognitive performance”, explains Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley. “Our research shows that moderate, short-lived stress can improve alertness and performance and boost memory.”

Moderate stress can kickstart you into action. We all know how the stress of a deadline can steer your focus and provide you with the motivation you need because time is running out. It also forces you into finding solutions to problems and to become more creative in the process. This ultimately
builds your confidence in dealing with difficult situations and stands you in good stead for future experiences.

It’s only when stress becomes chronic, when it continues or intensifies and lasts for long periods of time, that it negatively affects your health and wellbeing. It can cause depression and chronic fatigue as well as high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. It makes you feel exhausted, overwhelmed and no longer in control. It takes its toll on your mind-body system and can lead to burnout.

Most societal messages only reinforce the harmful effects of stress so you can be forgiven for not perceiving any stress in a positive light. Stress guru, Richard Sutton, in his book, The Stress Code, emphasises the importance of viewing stress as a positive experience. Sutton cites research from Harvard University which shows that reframing stress as positive can not only protect your cardiovascular health and enhance your cognitive abilities, it can also improve your body’s ability to recover from challenging events and situations. By changing our perception about the world around us, we are suddenly able to see the benefits of a situation and can gain control over the stress.

The secret is to find the right balance of stress – enough moderate stress to motivate and ignite you to perform at your peak, but not too much over an extended period that eventually becomes detrimental to your mind-body system with adverse effects to your health, relationships and career.

Read how to build resilience and learn recovery strategies to deal with stress.