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The positive effects of stress: How stress can actually be beneficial to your wellbeing

Firstly, let’s just clarify that too much stress is definitely a bad thing, and we’re not here to tell you otherwise. But let's also debunk the myth that all stress is bad for you. While it's true that excessive and prolonged stress can have negative effects on your health, not all stress is created equal. In fact, there is such a thing as positive stress.

What is stress?

Stress is the body's response to any challenging situation or experience – at home or at work.

When you are stressed, your body releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This can lead to physical symptoms like increased heart rate, tense muscles, and rapid breathing, and mental symptoms such as anxiety, irritability, or depression.

Stress is designed to keep you safe. In the days of old when predators were a risk, stress would help you get away by preparing your body to run! These days, threats tend to be more mundane such as deadlines or difficult conversations, but your body is still preparing you to take on lions and the symptoms are less helpful.

Positive vs negative stress

Positive stress, also known as ‘eustress’ (you-stress), can actually be beneficial for your overall well-being. It's the kind of stress that motivates you to take action and achieve goals. Think of the excitement and anticipation you feel before an important presentation or a challenging project - that's positive stress at work.

Negative stress or ‘distress’ occurs when you are overwhelmed and unable to cope with the demands placed upon you. If this type of stress becomes chronic (goes on for a long time) it can lead to health problems such as anxiety disorders and high blood pressure.

However, simply knowing that stress isn't always a bad thing can help you experience stress positively. By recognising the difference between positive and negative stressors, you can make better decisions about how you respond to them.

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Stress is designed to keep you safe. In the days of old when predators were a risk, stress would help you get away by preparing your body to run!

The positive effects of stress

Stress is a powerful motivator

When you're faced with a deadline or a challenging task, the pressure you feel can push you to work harder and perform better than usual. It can ignite your drive and determination to achieve your goals. (It’s also why so many people are most productive just before a deadline!)

Stress can enhance your resilience and problem-solving skills.

When faced with stressful situations, your brain goes into overdrive, searching for solutions and creative ways to overcome obstacles. This heightened state of alertness allows you to think outside the box and come up with innovative solutions to problems.

Stress can strengthen your relationships.

In times of difficulty or crisis, we often rely on the support of others. Stressful situations have a way of bringing people together, fostering empathy and compassion towards one another. This sense of unity can lead to stronger bonds and deeper connections with those around us.

Stress can promote personal growth and self-improvement.

Stress pushes us out of our comfort zones and forces us to confront challenges head-on. Through these experiences, we learn more about ourselves – our strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities – leading to personal development and self-discovery.

Stress can improve cognitive function.

Research has found that acute stress can help improve your mental performance. The study suggests that those shorter moments of stress that you overcome quickly can help generate new brain cells that improve mental performance and memory.

Chronic vs acute stress

The positive effects of stress mentioned above largely relate to acute stress rather than chronic stress. Acute stress is short-lived and overcome quickly. Chronic stress occurs when you are stressed for a long time and never get the opportunity to overcome it.

Think of a sliding scale from ‘not stressed’ to ‘extremely stressed. Healthy stress lets you travel up and down the scale, whereas chronic stress keeps you teetering around the top with no respite.

What to do about chronic stress

Chronic stress is tough but you can overcome it. You can help yourself by taking good care of your body and mind – eat well, exercise, get good sleep, and do things you find fun or pleasurable. You can also practice stress management techniques and breathing exercises.

Take a look at your stressors and assess whether there is anything you can do about them. If it’s a workplace issue, you could talk to your manager or HR.

Talking about what’s causing you stress can often ease the burden somewhat. Talk to someone you trust, or, if you need extra support you might find counselling helpful – speak to your GP or find out if your employer offers counselling services.

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Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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