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Kelly McGonigal speaks at TEDGlobal 2013: Think Again. June 12-15, 2013, Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo: James Duncan Davidson / TED

Is Stress Good or Bad?

The Covid 19 pandemic has affected all of us in many ways. We don’t yet know what Christmas will look like, and although although we now have the welcome news that vaccines will become available, we don’t know  when and we don’t know what is in store for us in 2021. 

Fear and stress are natural and normal reactions to the changing and uncertain situation that we all find ourselves in. Public health actions, though necessary, such as social distancing, can make all of us feel isolated and lonely and can increase our stress and anxiety. Coping with life’s challenge in a healthy way will make us, the people we care about, and our communities stronger.

Is stress always bad or can it sometimes lead to positive changes? 

Feeling stressed can feel perfectly normal, especially when we are coping with a larger than normal workload, whether at college or school, work or at home. You might notice that sometimes being stressed-out motivates you to focus on your work, yet at other times, you feel incredibly overwhelmed and can’t concentrate on anything. Most of us have felt like this at times over the past few months.

While stress affects everyone in different ways, there are two major types: the type that’s beneficial and motivating — good stress — and the type that causes anxiety and even health problems — bad stress. 

Good Stress

According to experts, stress is a burst of energy that basically advises you on what to do. In small doses, stress has many advantages. For instance, it can help you meet daily challenges and motivates you to reach your goals. In fact, stress can help you accomplish tasks more efficiently. It can even boost memory.

Stress is also a vital warning system, producing the fight-or-flight response. When the brain perceives some kind of threat, it starts flooding the body with chemicals like adrenalin and cortisol. This creates a variety of reactions such as an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. Plus, the senses suddenly have a laser-like focus so you can avoid physically stressful situations — such as jumping away from an oncoming car — and be safe.

In addition, there are various health benefits with a little bit of stress. Researchers believe that some stress can help to fortify the immune system. For instance, it can improve how your heart works and protect your body from infection. In one study, individuals who experienced moderate levels of stress before surgery were able to recover faster than individuals who had low or high levels.

Bad Stress

However too much stress can be detrimental. Emotional stress that stays around for weeks or months can weaken the immune system and cause high blood pressure, fatigue, depression, anxiety and even heart disease. In particular, too much adrenalin can be harmful to your heart. It can change the arteries and how their cells are able to regenerate.

How we perceive and define stress matters

Dr. Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University compiled a number of studies to try to answer the question “is stress good or bad?” She argued that how we define stress matters.  If we see a situation as a threat, our body goes into a fight-or-flight response, and over time we learn to avoid stressful circumstances. When we see an adverse event as a challenge and an opportunity to rise to the occasion, it move towards it instead of avoiding it. 

Both types of motivation propel action, but one has a long-lasting positive effect on the mind and body while the other can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and burnout:

The two key responses

There are two extremely important responses that need to kick in if we are to develop resilience in the face of stress: 

When we move towards a challenge rather than retreat or avoid it, it is our challenge response that motivates, increases confidence and allows us to learn from the experience. It releases adrenaline as well as cortisol and mobilises our energy. The difference between the fear-driven fight-or-flight response and the challenge response is that the positive response makes us focused and allows us to perform under pressure.

Second is the tend-and-befriend response that motivates us toward caregiving, increases courage and strengthens relationships. Driven by oxytocin, we feel compelled to connect to and protect others and to seek out support ourselves. Known as the “love molecule,” oxytocin not only makes us reach out but also increases our cardiovascular health over time.

We live in a complex world. To thrive in times of exponential change, we must know what we can control and be able to deal with ambiguity.

Watch Kelly McGonigal’s excellent TEDtalk:

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541


Book a counselling session today!

See also: Strategies for Managing UncertaintyReduce Stress by Managing UncertaintyManaging Change and Uncertainty