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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
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!


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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

  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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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