Can Stress Be a Good Thing? The Surprising Benefits of Stress

by Amy Steinberg Published Apr 3, 2018 Last updated Apr 3, 2018

“I’m so stressed.” “Don’t stress out.” “This stress is killing me.”

Stress gets a bad reputation. We talk about its impact on everything from our hearts to our sleep to our relationships. We find ways to eliminate it through meditation and medication. We blame it for our worst days and our biggest mistakes. But does stress really deserve its bad renown? Could stress actually be good for us?

Stress Makes Us More Alert

Think about the biological purpose of stress. We are stressed when we sense that something might be wrong. Whether it’s a looming deadline, an upcoming speaking engagement, or fear of a potential change, our bodies are at a heightened awareness. We are ready to take quick action if necessary, and we are more alert to our surroundings.

Dr. Daniela Kaufer, a professor at UC-Berkeley, studies the biological effects of stress, and she is convinced that there are long-term benefits to periods of stress. Her research has found that stress can improve overall alertness and boost long-term memory. It’s basically an exercise for our brains, and just like an exercise for our muscles, going through a challenging time helps us perform more effectively later.

Stress Can Keep You Healthier

Not only does stress improve cognitive function, but it also has a positive impact on our immune systems. A research study out of Yale took a close look at 400 employees at an international financial firm. They found that those who had a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset (in other words, those who saw stress as a challenge that improved them) had other positive health outcomes as well. They had better overall health, reported greater satisfaction with their lives, and performed better at work.

Another important finding of the Yale study is that mindsets about stress are malleable. That means that they can be changed. People who want to look at stress differently can train their minds to accept that stress is a beneficial part of life in order to start reaping the benefits.

People Seek Out Stress

It’s impossible to live a life without stress, but most people go a few steps further than that and actively seek out stressful experiences. Haunted houses, roller coasters, video games, and horror movies are all money-making proof that people aren’t really trying to avoid stress in their lives.

Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum is the author of Real Cause, Real Cure and has researched the impacts of stress on the immune system. He admits that he is an “adrenaline junkie” who seeks out the chance to feel stressed, but he notes that there are different kinds of stress. Instead of making a blanket statement like “all stress is bad” or “all stress is good,” the truth is much more complicated.

Different types of stress impact the body in different ways, and people need to examine the kind of stress they are experiencing in order to fully benefit from it (or work on eliminating it if it is not beneficial).

Length Matters

One of the most important differences between “good stress” and “bad stress” is how long it lasts. Dr. Kaufer explains that chronic stress is not good for us and can have negative biological effects. We don’t get the chance to process and learn from our stressful experiences if they never end. She also notes that control is a major factor in determining whether stress is beneficial or harmful. People who have a measure of control over their situation are much more likely to benefit from the stress they are experiencing. This is why we like a horror movie much more than experiencing a horror ourselves.

Dr. Kaufer discusses the impact in a business setting. A deadline can be very effective and actually get people to work more effectively and productively, but only if the person facing the deadline has the control to actually meet it. Deadlines that are impossible to meet, however, are likely to cause people to freeze up or have poor work outcomes.

The most beneficial stress is short-term and presents the person experiencing it in a situation they have some control over.

Take a Break

Even short-term stress where you have some control can be bad for you if it comes back-to-back without a break. Dr. Teitelbaum notes the importance of recuperation to fully experiencing the benefits of stress. He likens it to weightlifting. You have to give your muscles time to rest in between workouts and even in between individual sets of lifting. Your mind, too, needs breaks between stressful situations.

It can be fine to work on a tight deadline and push yourself to the edge of your productivity, but if you turn around and do it every week for a month, you’re likely going to start seeing a loss in your cognitive clarity and in your ability to produce work that meets your standards.

Use Stress to Your Advantage

The bottom line is that stress doesn’t have to have a negative impact on our lives. If we are able to differentiate between stress that harms and stress that helps, we can focus our energy in more productive ways. We can stop trying to eliminate every stressor from our lives (an impossible feat) and instead work on tackling the stresses we can control with focus and optimism.

As a result, we’ll also be able to recognize chronic stress and its detriment, focusing on eliminating it rather than accepting it as inevitable.

When you start to feel stressed, ask yourself what kind of stress you are feeling. Does it have an end in sight? What steps can you take to control the outcome? If there is no clear end or you feel out of control, ask yourself if there is a way you can change that. If you have a deadline approaching that feels impossible, can you get an extension on a specific part of it while completing another portion? Can you collaborate with someone else to make it manageable?

Finally, make sure that reflection becomes a regular part of your routine. Stress is most useful if we learn from it, and that means taking time to ask what we can take away from stressful experiences to make future experiences go more smoothly.

The next time you feel stressed out, take a breath and remember that stress can be good . . . as long as there’s an end in sight.