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Is there such thing as GOOD stress?

Stress is an unavoidable consequence of life. As Hans Selye (who coined the term as it is currently used) noted, “Without stress, there would be no life”. However, just as distress can cause disease, it seems plausible that there are good stresses that promote wellness. Stress is not always necessarily harmful. Winning a race or election can be just stressful as losing, or more so, but may trigger very different biological responses. Increased stress results in increased productivity — up to a point. However, this level differs for each of us. It’s very much like the stress on a violin string. Not enough produces a dull, raspy sound. Too much tension makes a shrill, annoying noise or snaps the string. However, just the right degree can create a magnificent tone. Similarly, we all need to find the proper level of stress that allows us to perform optimally and make melodious music as we go through life.


The quote above comes from The American Institute of Stress, which has a great site focused on the mind/body connection in stress. There is such thing as the “positive” stress you feel pre-game or pre-performance that helps you deliver the performance of your life. You may feel that same good stress at work if you are primed for an activity that you can accomplish right then and there. Short term, acute stress, known as the fight-or-flight response, can help you focus and perform, if it is in the right amount. This kind of stress is short lived. You feel the jitters or adrenaline for a period of time, then you use it up accomplishing your goal, and then you get to rest and recover while basking in the glow of your accomplishment.

The General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) describes the long-term, nasty kind of stress that just doesn’t go away. The kind of stress that paralyzes you into inaction – where you just stare at the problem and worry about it without being able to do anything about it. This is the kind of stress that kills your neurons, destroys your immune and cardiovascular systems, and makes you anxious, irritable, and unable to sleep. This is the kinds that can be helped through meditation, yoga, tai chi, developing a plan to address the problem, or nurturing your friendships.

Take-Away Message
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As with most things, there are levels of stress. While an optimal amount can help you, too much or too little can hurt. Stress levels and performance follow a bell curve or normal distribution.

You need to find ways to help control and lower your long-term stress-we will post suggestions for that. Don’t worry too much about being under-stressed … life seems to take care of that pretty well!

-Caroline

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7 Responses

  1. I was heartened to see you raise the “good vs bad stress” (quite artificial) distinction. This grossly misleading distinction is the focus of my recent post at http://www.selyestressinsights.typepad.com

  2. Caroline says:

    Great article Richard – you help clarify a confusing concept for people. We all need some stress to stay alive, but too much consistent stress without a release can cause damage. Finding that optimum level is the catch!

  3. Roxane says:

    I’ve been doing research about this topic for about 6 months now, and this article is the one that best summarizes many of the scientific research papers I’ve been reading all along this time. Great article!

  4. Alvaro says:

    Wow, Roxane, thanks for the kind words!

    Will make sure Caroline sees your comment. What is your research about?

  5. loiver says:

    Great tips, thanks!

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