It's all too easy to discount stress as something bad that should be avoided at all costs. In the conventional sense, stress is often associated with increased anxiety, diminished energy levels, and weakened immunity. And let’s admit, feeling under pressure or chronically overworked isn’t necessarily growth-enabling.
But the fact is, not all stress is created equal. The idea that all stress is bad stress is far from true, and there’s ample science to back it up.
In certain circumstances, exposure to stress can actually be beneficial to our health. The key is to recognise the 'good' from the 'bad', proactively implement habits that work to build stress tolerance and maximise time in the ‘good zone’. Read on to learn more.
Good Stress versus Bad Stress
The fundamentals of good stress and bad stress are fairly straightforward and easy to detect with practice.
Eustress, or good stress, can have a positive influence on health and emotional wellbeing. Like the case of a significant work project, physical feat, or life event, eustress is generally a stimulating and exciting form of stress that can encourage bouts of motivation, creativity, and focus.
Distress, or bad stress, is a chronic state that can have a crippling effect on mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. Distress is often associated with feelings of physical pain, depression, anxiety, and overwhelm, and the stress generally lingers over time.
Knowing that stress is a spectrum will help you become more attuned to and open to embrace the good type of stress. These are a few notable health benefits of eustress that can help you gain comfort with the inherently uncomfortable feeling of stress.
Stress Boosts Cognition
Moderate stress levels have been shown to boost cognition. Researchers at UC Berkeley found that particular circumstances of stress can improve alertness as well as behavioral and cognitive performance. “Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.” says Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. How does it work? Pre-clinical studies found brain stem cells to proliferate into new nerve cells when exposed to stressful events.1 “Moderate stress can actually improve brain performance by strengthening the connection between neurons in the brain.” according to neurologist Dr. Kashouty.
Stress Strengthens Immunity
The layers of stress are complex. Some forms of psychological stress have been shown to upregulate the immune system, helping accelerate wound repair, prevent infections, and protect against disease.2 However, chronic psychological stress is known to disrupt the immune system and accelerate biological aging, largely mediated by oxidative damage.3
The role of interleukins (a group of protein regulating the immune response) can have both good and bad qualities depending on the type of stress. Interleukins can have anti-inflammatory and immunity-boosting properties4 - or the opposite effect - depending on the intensity, duration, and adaptation to the stressors at hand.
Stress Builds Resiliency & Grit
Building resilience and grit are important psychological qualities that are largely stress contingent. There are many ways to develop these attributes, but a common denominator is proactively managing how you respond to stressful events and obstacles.
In one compelling review of three university studies, students were tested on grit, perceived stress, self-control, and mental wellbeing. The research revealed a negative correlation between grit and perceived stress, reinforcing that “psychological resources, particularly grit, make students less prone to distress.”5
Enduring tough and testing circumstances – be it social, physical, mental, or emotional – builds different layers of grit and resilience. Dealing with (eu)stressful situations (and harnessing the capacity to rise above them) cultivates a greater sense of control and confidence when faced with adversity, which can be a valuable life asset.
Stress Is Inevitable
Whether we like it or not, stress is an inevitable part of life. By shifting the perspective from avoidance and post-management of stress to a proactive approach that embraces its benefits, we can spend more time in the ‘good zone’, enhance our mental resilience and lean into challenges with more ease.
- Kirby, Elizabeth et al. “Acute stress enhances hippocampal neurogenesis and activation of newborn neurons via secreted astrocytic FGF2.” Neuroscience 10 16 Apr 2013, doi: 10.7554/eLife.00362
- Segerstrom, Suzanne C, and Gregory E Miller. “Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry.” Psychological bulletin vol. 130,4 (2004): 601-30. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601
- Aschbacher, Kirstin et al. “Good stress, bad stress and oxidative stress: insights from anticipatory cortisol reactivity.” Psychoneuroendocrinology vol. 38,9 (2013): 1698-708. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.02.004
- Fuster, José J, and Kenneth Walsh. “The good, the bad, and the ugly of interleukin-6 signaling.” The EMBO journal vol. 33,13 (2014): 1425-7. doi:10.15252/embj.201488856
- Kannangara, Chathurika S et al. “All That Glitters Is Not Grit: Three Studies of Grit in University Students.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 9 1539. 29 Aug. 2018, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01539