How To Know When Stress Is Helpful

Most people have had a time when they feel high levels of stress. It might be caused by exam time, going through a divorce, moving house, or any number of things. But what is stress?

About Stress

Stress is a response to some strain in your life, involving physical symptoms, emotional reactions, and behavioral changes. These are really just adaptations to cope with the strain, which people usually call a “stressor.” When people are stressed they report being able to feel it physically. Their muscles might get tight, their heartrate might change, or they could get headaches. Emotionally, people often become upset or irritated more easily. Behaviorally, people can react and behave in all sorts of ways, such as snapping at people, drinking, or exercising. There are really too many different possible reactions to describe.

However, there is a difference between stress and anxiety. Stress is a more global response to day-to-day life. Anxiety is more about specific anticipated threats and is often a negative effect exacerbated by stress.

How Does Stress Build Up?

In the 1930’s a doctor called Hans Selye described a model for how the body adapts to stress that is still used today. This model is called General Adaptation Syndrome, and you should know about it.

In this model there are 3 main stages:

Stage 1: The stress kicks in and temporarily lowers your resistance. It “stresses you out.” Sort of like in a movie where the bad guys start winning. Your body goes into an alarm mode and tries to mobilize resources to fight back.

Stage 2: Vive la résistance! Your body fights back and you become stronger in the face of the stress.

Stage 3: If the stressor continues, it will eventually overwhelm and cause exhaustion. This has a whole bunch of negative effects on the body.

When is Stress Good and When is it Bad?

Stress is a good thing when it causes us to react in a helpful way. For example, when I had exams at university I would get stressed. I was stressed by the exams, the feeling that school would never end, mounting homework, and other life events all coming together. In response to all this I would start studying (or “revising” as we say in England). By learning the exam material I became confident that I would do well, and my stress lowered a little. The stressor of exams went away because I knew the information and didn’t find the prospect of an exam stressful anymore. The stress of other school demands also decreased as the year would come to an end.

Me studying for exams…

Stress can also be a bad thing. For example, if I get stressed by all the above, I could suddenly stop sleeping, eating, or doing exercise. These become additional stressors for me. I start to be unable to take in anything I’m studying because I’m sleep deprived and so worried about doing poorly on the exam. Maybe I get sick because of the strain this starts to put on me. All of this overwhelms and exhausts me and I’m less prepared to do well on the exam, or pretty much any other task.

Check out this video from a show called “The Inbetweeners” for an example of stress having a negative effect:

How Do I Know if Stress is Good or Bad?

Honestly, it’s hard to tell. Often stress is a bad thing when it continues for a long time, but that’s not always the case and it depends a lot of the effects it has on a person. Here’s the thing though: It’s often not about stress being good or bad, it’s about your reactions to the stress. My general rule of thumb is to ask yourself whether the stress is helping you take action that is beneficial, in which case it might be a good thing. If I am stressed because of 50 different things going on in my life, but I set aside time to at least deal with one problem, then I’d say I’m doing something productive to help me manage it. I’m doing some good problem solving because I’m stressed. If I am so stressed that I avoid all 50 tasks until it becomes completely overwhelming then I’d argue that I’m not coping well with the stress.

How to Manage Stress

This is a bigger topic for another article. The first step is finding time to do something about it. Even if it’s only 5 minutes each day, find some time. However, I’ve worked with many people who tell me they are so stressed they don’t have enough time to do things to manage their stress. Without going into specifics, I’d argue that if that’s the case then we have a big problem. If it feels like your plate is so full that you can’t do anything about it, we have to quickly find some way to reduce what’s on the plate first. If you don’t have time to use a stress management strategy then I sympathize strongly with you. The first problem to solve is how to find a little time in order to manage the bigger problem.

Thanks for reading!

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