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Not all stress is bad

Sure, that sounds like one of those empty, “comforting” statements people make when their lives are completely in order and yours is falling apart.

As someone who is working full time and enrolled in graduate school please let me tell you: that statement isn’t empty to me.

Let’s look at the history of stress. It works as part of the well-known fight-or-flight response. By giving you a way to rally all your forces when emergencies strike, stress can literally save your life.

(Ever heard stories of individuals lifting 2,000-pound cars to save someone trapped underneath? According to Psychology Today, that really happens, and stress is to thank.)

Stress can also help in times of mental and emotional uproar. With the perception to channel it properly, you can actually harness your stress and redirect it into motivation and extra energy.

Good Stress, Bad Stress

Remember, stress evolved from times when our ancestors had to do things like hunt – and run away when a hunt turned sour. In other words, sources of stress were easy to identify: Ahhh! Lion! Stress didn’t last long, and it produced a primarily physical response.

In modern times, many of our stressors are ongoing: overdue bills, rush hour traffic, and friction with family members. Those kinds of stress can become chronic and wreak havoc on the body if left unmanaged. (Here are more resources on how to handle this kind of continuous stress.)

What I want to talk about today are positive stressors: the modern equivalent of a hunt. These are sources of stress that we choose, because ultimately they will improve our lives.

In the past, stress got your body prepped to be alert in the field, because there was life-sustaining food to be gained. Today, stress hones your mind to perform tasks like acing a job interview so you can advance your career.

How Stress Helps

As the article in Psychology Today describes, stress offers five temporary benefits. Two of these—instinctual response and increased strength—can help tremendously in events like races, extreme sports, and disasters.

The three other benefits, though, are the ones that can enhance mental performance and problem-solving ability. By causing our bodies to release adrenaline, stress can improve focus, simulate time dilation, and lend us fearlessness.

Examples of Positive Stress

When I’m up at 3am finishing a final project with an 8am deadline, the hyper-alertness triggered by last-minute drama is a better stimulant than caffeine. That’s not to say I produce my best work under pressure. It is to say the stress of impending failure brings a marked focus to my work: I stop detouring to Facebook and concentrate on typing out my thoughts, until the project is finished.

Time dilation goes hand in hand with focus. In circumstances with a “do-or-die” outcome, humans can experience the sensation of time slowing down. Imagine an Olympic diver who is aware of every subtle movement in a dive that, to casual observers, speeds by in less than three seconds. You may have felt the same “stretching” of time if you’ve ever had just moments to prepare before a critically important phone call, or just minutes to pack before an unexpected trip.

Finally, stress can lend us a degree of fearlessness. Faced with great risk, our bodies put every energy into helping us succeed. This is why opportunities are a source of the right kind of stress. A better job, an exciting move, or the chance to start a family bring all kinds of questions, doubts, and changes to a settled routine. However, stress gives us the gift of priming all our faculties so we’re as prepared as possible to tackle the challenges we deem worthwhile.

As always, balance is crucial to overall wellness. While you pursue whatever goals you’re after, remember that stress serves us best in small doses. Between bursts of achievement, make sure to leave time for fun, relaxation, and pleasure. 

– Jennie Saia, Contributing Editor