Stress Can Be Good For Us

Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk has had more than 10 million views. I love her perspective on the benefits of stress and how we can make friends with stress — it certainly doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast.

You can watch the full talk here but here are some of my takeaways, plus a couple of other ideas about the positive role stress can play in our lives. This type of stress is often referred to as eustress (as opposed to distress — the bad kind) — I say often, I only came across the word while researching this post.

Stress is only harmful to your health if you believe it is.

Kelly quotes a study that found that high levels of stress increased people’s chances of suffering a pre-mature death by 43%.

I know, I just told you stress was good for you!

But hang on a minute. This finding only holds true for those “who perceived that stress affects their health” and have high levels of stress. The participants whose attitude was that stress had no negative effect on their health, but still had high levels of stress, were the least likely to die early.

The mechanism for this isn’t entirely clear. Believing that stress is a natural and helpful part of life may lead you to come up with good ways to deal with stress, ask for help when you need it and see stressing events as challenges, instead of trying to avoid it at all costs. Kelly also details the strengthening effect the so-called stress hormones have on our brains and hearts. Either way, changing your perspective and seeing some stress has a positive force can change the effect it has on you.

The stress paradox says happy lives include stress.

Here’s the stress paradox in a nutshell: Stress is always part of a happy life, which means a totally stress-free life cannot be a happy one.

A study done by Roy Baumeister (a pioneer of willpower research) in 2013, shows that we often believe the most stressful events in our lives to also be the most meaningful. There seems to be something about pushing the limits of our comfort zone that brings meaning to our lives.

Perhaps it’s because we don’t grow without a bit of pressure — you have to watch this video about lobsters.

You can channel your stress into energy that boosts your performance.

Which one do you think is the better thing to tell yourself before a presentation, “I am calm” or “I am excited”?

It might be a surprise to you, but it’s the latter. Harvard professor Alison Brooks told two groups of her students to try these, and afterwards asked the crowd who performed better. The group who tried to get excited were perceived as more confident, competent and graceful. That’s because they didn’t just try to calm down the anxiety, but instead, channeled the stress into energy, to make the presentation fun.

I do a lot of public speaking and I know that I perform better when I’m a bit nervous beforehand. So the next time you’re stressed out, change that negative self-talk into something that’s not calming, but encouraging, and try to use that energy to make things happen.

A little bit of stress makes us better at managing stress.

Some researchers have suggested that exposure to a moderate level of stress that you can master, can actually make you stronger and better able to manage stress. Like a vaccine, which contains a tiny amount of the bug, can prevent you contracting a disease.

The theory of mental toughness suggests that experiencing some manageable stressors, with recovery in between, can make us more mentally and physically tough and less reactive to future stress. I would stress [no pun intended] the importance of the recovery in between as part of a balanced life.

Perhaps such experiences help us view stressful situations as more familiar and more manageable and help build our confidence when we face similar situations. Maybe we just get better and more skilled at dealing with them. Or maybe we just get better at tolerating the discomfort and less scared of change.

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I’m not denying the very real harm that stress is doing to thousands and thousands of people. But I do believe that a large amount, though by no means all, of that stress is down to our mindset and response to stressful situations. Recognising the upsides of a stressful situation can really help reduce the amount of stress and overwhelm we feel and actually turn it into a positive and meaningful experience.