Stress. It’s a bad thing, right?
When we hear about stress, we immediately think of negative emotions and even physical symptoms. We associate it with difficult situations, tension, and overwork.
In fact, just reading the word “stress” can send a pang of anxiety through your body, as you picture all the bad things that stress can do.
But not all stress is negative. You can also experience it when you get into a really exciting activity, or manage something you weren’t sure you could achieve.
This kind of stress is good for you. It’s healthy stress—sometimes called “eustress,” which is the opposite of “distress.”
Eustress can sharpen your mind, build your resiliency, and give you that little extra push you need to do your very best work.
And while you might feel that eustress is pretty rare compared to toxic stress, you’re actually feeling it in many situations. It’s just that you don’t necessarily think of it as stress—or maybe you’re not aware of the feeling at all.
Let’s look at some ways you can get the benefits of healthy stress while avoiding the more harmful kind.
The stress response is how your body reacts when you perceive an immediate threat. As it releases epinephrine (adrenaline) into the bloodstream, your heart races, your breathing becomes quicker and shallower, your muscles tense, and you get “butterflies.” This is sometimes called the “fight or flight” response because your body is readying itself to either fight off a threat or run away.
The right amount of stress can be motivating, exciting, and inspiring. It’s the feeling you get when you’re riding a rollercoaster, or going on a first date, or nailing that tough presentation in front of your new boss. This is eustress: a moderate level of stress that doesn’t last too long.
Eustress can also help you get into a flow state, where you’re totally immersed and engaged in what you’re doing. You might experience flow when working on a new, interesting project, or grappling with a difficult problem, or using your skills for something you feel passionate about.
As you make use of all your talents and capabilities, you feel a deep sense of purpose, fulfillment, and achievement. When you’re done, you know that you left it all out there on the field. And that’s an exhilarating feeling.
Over time, eustress builds your resilience. Your abilities are like muscles: the more you use them, the stronger they get. One day, a task is challenging—but the next day, it becomes easy and familiar.
As you repeatedly move outside your comfort zone, your confidence and capabilities expand, and you become more autonomous and self-directed. In this sense, healthy stress helps you grow.
Being a little stretched, for a little while, can be positive. Once you’ve dealt with a situation in the here-and-now, you relax again and your body returns to a balanced state. This is known as acute stress.
But if the stress is too much, or it goes on for too long, you can wind up feeling overwhelmed, and your well-being may suffer. This is called chronic stress.
Chronic stress often happens at work—for example, if you’re trying to hit multiple tight deadlines, or working late night after night. A negative working environment won’t help. Over the long term, these problems can lead to burnout.
However, life outside of work can be challenging too. Adverse events such as grief, divorce, homelessness, or unemployment are all stress triggers. And even things that we do willingly, like moving to a new house or changing jobs, can be pretty stressful.
Over time, chronic stress can affect both your mental and your physical health. So it’s vital that you recognize the tell-tale signs before things get really rough. If you’re feeling edgy, powerless, or anxious a lot of the time, or if you get a lot of headaches or sleepless nights, you could be suffering from chronic stress.
While external events are the original cause of stress, the way you look at those events is an important factor too.
We all have different views about what’s stressful, and what level of stress is “too much.” It all depends on what resources we can bring to the problem—and the help we can get from those around us, too.
For example, while a fast-paced culture in the workplace can be oppressive for some workers, others may find it energizing. And if you’ve already lived in a dozen cities, moving to a new home isn’t actually that big of a deal.
There’s a really important lesson here: when it comes to stress, the only experience that matters is yours. Nobody can tell you that something “isn’t really that stressful,” or that you “shouldn’t stress about it.” If something feels stressful to you, it is stressful—period.
To deal with stress, you need to get clear on what’s coming from outside, and what is coming from within.
External events are outside your control. For example, if your workplace is stressing you out, you need to take action to change it if you can, or aim to move on if you can’t (this post on 5 Workplace Behaviors can help). If you take on responsibility for other people’s actions, your stress will just get out of control.
But you may be able to deal with some of the stressors in your life by changing the way you think and feel about them.
For example, if you perceive something as a threat, you’ll feel acute stress. But if you see it as a challenge instead, you may be able to turn your fear into excitement or anticipation—and then you won’t have the same stress experience. You’ll go from “fight or flight” to “excite and delight.” And if you can’t feel quite that positive about it, maybe you can still find the strength to push through.
Researchers have found that the way we put our feelings into words can help us deal with difficult experiences. One study found that when people were told, “You're the kind of person whose performance improves under pressure,” it really did—by up to a third.
Of course, you can’t simply deny that stress exists. Instead, lean into it and make it work for you. Focus on the positives in your situation. First, reflect on the benefits that you’ll get when you come through this: a workplace win, an improved personal life, or just a feeling of accomplishment.
Next, get back in touch with the resources you can draw on: your life experience, emotional resilience, book smarts, and hands-on skills. That includes your meta-skills too. For example, while you may not know the answer right now, you do know how to go out and find it.
Remind yourself of your higher purpose, and how this activity contributes to it. Or, if that isn't possible, focus on offering help to someone who needs it. Doing a small kindness can put your own stress into perspective—and it actually helps build your resilience, too.
If you’re facing a big task, break it down into smaller pieces. If you make the steps small enough, you’ll surely be able to achieve them.
You can also build up your “stress muscles” by seeking out eustress. Consciously choose activities that push you a little further outside your comfort zone. Then, like an athlete resting up after training, take time to recover and de-stress.
Recognize your personal stress markers, so you can act on stress before it becomes chronic. The sooner you can take action or change your way of thinking, the less harmful your stress will be.
No life can be completely free of stress. But as we’ve seen, not all stress is bad—and there are often ways to reduce stress without making radical changes in your life. So whatever stress you’re facing, take a deep breath, recognize your feelings, and start thinking about what you could do differently.
Calm Business has some great resources for dealing with workplace stress, building resilience, and changing your mindset. Set up a demo here.
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