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!



  1. Richard Earle on August 7, 2007 at 12:36

    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 on August 7, 2007 at 7:51

    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 on November 4, 2007 at 1:21

    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 on November 4, 2007 at 3:51

    Wow, Rox­ane, thanks for the kind words!

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

  5. loiver on December 18, 2008 at 3:44

    Great tips, thanks!

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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