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6 Ways to Turn Bad Stress into Good Stress

Believe it or not, there is such a thing as healthy stress.

Stress makes us overeat, lie awake at night, and lose our cool with friends and family. Over time, it can create wear and tear on our minds and bodies. Research shows that chronic, unrelenting stress can shorten the telomeres in our brains, wear down our immune systems and create damaging inflammation. Too much stress can lead to exhaustion, anxiety, and depression.

But stress is not inherently good or bad. It’s just a natural part of being human and facing changing circumstances. It’s an integral part of our fast-paced lives in the information age and it’s not going away anytime soon. Surprisingly, some stress may even be good for us. Researchers have found that healthy stress (or “eustress”) exists alongside unhealthy stress. If we never had to face new challenges, life would be monotonous and boring and we wouldn’t grow. So, how can we distinguish the two and harness the benefits of healthy stress?

Defining and Measuring Stress

Stress can result from the situation, such as facing prolonged unemployment or an unwanted divorce. But how we view the situation and our ability to cope can make a huge difference to the impact of any potential stressor. Stress is magnified when we perceive that even our best efforts won’t help to change the situation, or when we feel constantly threatened, and in danger of losing the things we have worked so hard for.

The “environmental” approach to stress defines stress in terms of major events that create changed circumstances and require us to adapt. In the 1950s, researchers Holmes and Rahe developed a scale to measure the number of “life change units” experienced in a given year. Studies showed a relationship between increased life change stress and disease, but effects shown were smaller than expected. Critics of this approach pointed out that the scale did not distinguish between positive change events (such as marriage) and negative events (such as bereavement). Surely these would not have the same impact on health. Also, an event that is stressful for one person may not be as stressful for somebody with more time, money, support, or emotional resilience.

In the 1970s Susan Folkman and Richard Lazarus proposed a “transactional” model of stress that defined stress as a constantly changing relationship between person and environment. They proposed that the effects of any stressful event would differ depending on whether the event was perceived as a threat, loss, challenge, or neutral. Perceived ability to cope also made a difference. Perceiving that you could take action to either improve the situation or reduce distress made the event less toxic. Tons of research studies followed this model and demonstrated that both appraisal of the stressor and problem-focused or emotion-focused coping efforts predicted many different health outcomes, ranging from depression and life satisfaction to physical symptoms and disease.

Researcher Sheldon Cohen at Carnegie Mellon University conducted a groundbreaking series of studies looking at effects of stress on the common cold. Participants completed an interview assessing both stressful life events and “perceived stress,” using validated scales and were then isolated in hotel rooms and exposed to the cold virus. The researchers went so far as to collect and chemically analyze tissues with nasal secretions to assess who actually got a cold. Results showed that both number of stressful life events and perceived stress, separately predicted greater likelihood of developing a cold after viral exposure. Scores on the “Perceived Stress Scale” measured how much people felt difficulties kept mounting up or that their lives were out of control.

Bruce McEwen from Rockefeller University proposed a theory of “allostatic load” to define physiologically harmful stress. What makes stress bad for us is when it is so intense or unrelenting that our bodies become exhausted and unable to recover. When our minds and bodies are worn down from a constant barrage of stressors, from a severe, unrelenting stress, or from a childhood filled with abuse or neglect, we become physiologically out of balance and vulnerable to many different negative health outcomes. We can assess allostatic load by many different physiological indicators, including blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels.

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