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.

The Stress Response

The stress response begins when our brains signal our bodies that there is a potential threat or environmental change that has to be coped with. This creates a cascade of chemical and hormonal effects designed to gear up the body for fight or flight. The release of the neurotransmitter epinephrine and hormone cortisol help increase blood flow to our heart and large muscles in our arms and legs. Hearts race, breathing gets shallow, airways widen, muscles tense, blood pressure rises, and blood sugar rises as glucose is released for fuel.

When our brains signal that the stressor is over, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated which puts the brakes on fight or flight and the hormone cortisol signals the body that it's time to wind down. This is a natural and functional response that helped protect our ancestors from being eaten by lions and tigers. It does not, in itself cause any physical harm and it can be experienced as either frightening or invigorating, depending on the situation.  

The threat to health occurs when stress becomes chronic. Either the stress doesn’t go away or we don’t calm down when the physical stressor is over. Chronic relationship or work stress or threat of violence may always be on our minds, interfering with sleep, concentration, healthy lifestyle, and relaxation. Studies of children exposed to neighborhood violence, the unemployed, chronically ill, caretakers of Alzheimers patients, and many other populations support this relationship. Over many years, our minds and bodies get worn out from chronic stress and we become vulnerable to a host of symptoms and diseases, ranging from muscle pain and slower wound healing to autoimmune diseases, depression, diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and possibly cancer.

Researchers are still trying to understand why chronic stress makes us more vulnerable to disease. Stress interferes with healthy lifestyle, making us more likely to overeat and less likely to exercise and live healthy. Chronic stress impairs our immune systems, making us less able to fight off harmful bacteria and viruses. A more recent theory suggests chronic stress may interfere with the way in which our bodies process cortisol and glucose. One theory suggests that the receptors in our tissues become less sensitive to the messaging effects of cortisol. Cortisol therefore becomes less able to calm down the inflammatory response to stress, leading to out of control inflammation, which disrupts the functioning of many organ systems.

Healthy Stress or “Eustress”

If stress has all these negative effects, how can it also be healthy? Well, it turns out that our bodies were designed to gear up energy and strength to deal with acute stresses and then rest and recover. So if we face a specific challenge, such as giving a presentation, running a race, networking, going on a first date, a job interview, or taking an exam, we may feel stressed for a while, but then we feel better. In fact, if we prepare properly for the stressful event, seek appropriate support and resources, and see it as meaningful or a personal challenge, we can turn these stressful events into positive experiences and opportunities for growth. The resulting positive emotions of pride or excitement can be motivating and invigorating.  

While our bodies may still go into fight or flight, with the same racing heart and sweaty palms, we may interpret this as excitement rather than terror—like when riding a rollercoaster or giving a successful speech. And when it’s done, we experience a relaxation response, as our brains signal safety. And we may feel like a better person for having done it, or savor the experience in our memory to revisit later on. We experience engagement, hope and confidence. If we can do this, we can do something even more difficult the next time. We start seeing ourselves as resilient, capable and even brave.  

The focus on “eustress” is the new theory of stress, put forward by business and positive psychology authors Nelson and Simmons. Or rather, this is an old theory of stress, originally put forward by endocrinologist Hans Selye in the 1960s, but now given new life. Research with nurses and college students seems to support these ideas, as well as the association of eustress with a sense of health and wellbeing.  

What You Can Do

The effects of stress on your health and mood depend not only on the event, but also on how you perceive and respond to the stressor. You can turn your stress around by seeing the situation as a challenge and opportunity for growth. It can help to use coping skills to deal actively with the problem or calm down your stressed emotions. Here are six things you can do to decrease your stress or turn it into eustress.

1) Find Meaning in the Situation

If you can find some meaning or growth potential in this difficult situation, it can help turn the stress from threat to challenge. Think about how this experience can make you a stronger person or teach you about what is most important in life. Reaching out to others facing a similar problem, blogging about your experiences, or social action are some ways people find meaning in difficult events.

2) Adopt a Growth Mindset

If you see your skills and abilities as fixed, you are more likely to feel helpless in the face of new losses or challenges. On the other hand, having a growth mindset means seeing life as a process rather than an outcome. Think about what new skills you might need to deal with this situation, then make a plan to go about learning and practicing them. And persevere. Research shows that practice and perseverance can make a huge difference to success.

3) Find Support

Finding social support is one of the most effective ways of decreasing your stress. Friends and family who believe in you can lift you up and remind you of your personal strengths and lovability. Having fun with friends can distract you from the stressor, and friends or family can provide a sympathetic listening ear or helpful knowledge to guide you. The feeling of being loved, understood and supported can actually help your nervous system to calm down.

4) Practice Mindfulness

When we are under chronic stress, our minds often wander back to the stressor. We may replay scenes in our mind, predict (negative) future outcomes, or regret the actions we took to end up here. Mindfulness is both a skill and a way of life that involves bringing our minds back to the present moment and adopting a calm, accepting attitude. So, when you find yourself in a worry cycle, stop what you are doing, take a deep breath, and then notice how your mind and body feels and where you are right now. Notice and describe what your breath is doing, what you feel like in your body, and what you see and hear right now. Taking a mindful break can ground you and take you away from constant preoccupation with the stressor.

5) Break the Problem Down into Manageable Steps

A chronically stressful situation can seem overwhelming to think of all at once. When we get overwhelmed, we are more likely to procrastinate or avoid, rather than coping actively. It is better to break the problem down into smaller pieces and then tackle them one at a time. If we lack the skills for a given step, then we need to add new steps in which we research and find a way to learn those skills. For example, finding a new job can be broken down into researching jobs, networking, updating your resume, doing exercise to keep yourself feeling active and positive, taking a course to fill a gap in your skills, preparing for an interview, and so on. Reward yourself for achieving each step along the way, to keep motivated.

6) Imagine a Positive Future Self

Project yourself into a future time when the stressor is over or when you have achieved the desired outcome. If you are struggling to pay off debt, imagine how good you will feel when you have stuck to your plan and are debt-free. Try to create a mental image of yourself achieving your desired goal. Imagine celebrating it, telling people about it, what you will be feeling and thinking. Create a vision board with pictures that illustrate your goal and look at it every day for inspiration.

Melanie Greenberg is a clinical psychologist and author in Marin County, Calif. Her work has appeared in journals such as Pain, Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, and the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. Visit her website, follow her on Twitter: @drmelanieg or sign up for her email list.