What’s Good Stress?

41800751 - young woman running on a rural road at sunset in summer field. lifestyle sports background

People sometimes ask me what’s good stress. Stress is generally considered so bad that people are often confused whether good stress actually exists. Dictionaries define stress as, “something that causes mental strain,” or a “state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances,” so it’s no wonder stress come to be synonymous with distress.

But this has never been the whole story about stress.

A brief history of stress

In physics, stress has long referred to the concept of elasticity, or the capacity to bend and stretch under pressure by external forces. But in 1936, scientist Hans Selye gave this word a new meaning when he coined the term stress to refer to “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” His work focused on lab animals’ behavioral and physiological reactions to a range of physically straining conditions, including temperature variations, confinement, shock and other forms of deprivation, and formed the architecture of how we think about human stress today.

The capacity to grow and change from pressure remains a cornerstone of Selye’s conceptualization of stress, but his work has been primarily remembered for defining the negative experience of stress.

Selye never conceived stress as a universally bad thing. In fact over the course of his career, he became convinced that the differences among stress responses would prove critical both for scientific community and the general public, distinguishing between good stress and bad stress later in his career by coining two new terms for negative and positive stress, distress and eustress.

Of these two terms, distress has had a more lasting impact in our thinking about stress than eustress, but Selye believed they were two sides of the same coin – how we react to pressure. He continually emphasized “stress is not what happens to you, but how you react to it,” and thus laid the groundwork for today’s most compelling stress research proving just that: Our perception of stress defines its impact on us.

What’s good stress

Although Selye conceived of stress as being either positive or negative, and the popular perception of stress still holds that it is harmful, we have come to understand that stress, and its impact on us, can be far more positive than we might have thought. Stressors of course vary, as do people in their relationship to stress, but stress can be a good thing. Good stress helps us focus on the goals we care about, and stay motivated to keep stretching ourselves toward them. It motivates us to step up to a challenge.

As science continues to probe for answers how to better cope with stress, we are learning we have much more control than we may have thought, especially when it comes to how we think about stress. When we control our attitude toward stress, we go a long way to controlling its impact on us.

Mechanics of stress

To leverage this control and maximize good stress, it is helpful to understand the two fundamental parts of stress:

  • The demand(s) for change and adjustment, known as the stressor; and
  • our capacity to meet the challenge.

Any significant imbalance between these two elements produces stress that drives us to restore equilibrium through change. The fundamental stress equation is the same whether it is good stress or bad stress. But the rest is in our control and up to us.

Taking control

How we think about stress is very much within our control, and can go a long way toward determining whether it’s good or bad. Simply believing stress is good and helpful can actually make it so.

For example, when we think of a stressor as a positive challenge, rather than a reflection of inadequacy, we maintain a stronger sense of control and a more positive attitude that motivates us to step up to the challenge. Likewise, when we think about our resources as capable of meeting, or growing to meet, a challenge, rather than insufficient and fixed, we inspire confidence in ourselves that keeps us feeling positive, and trying our best.

Power of positivity

Positivity also importantly sidesteps the toxic spiral of negative thinking and resistance to change avoidance that exponentially worsen stressful situations, making sure that our precious energy stays focused on the solution, rather than fighting the problem and your feelings.

If you find yourself slipping into frustration that demands are simply too great, choose to focus on the opportunity the challenge presents. If you find yourself besieged by fears of inadequacy, choose to focus on your capacity to grow and adapt. Adopting a growth mindset or a core belief in our capacity for growth and change, can be a powerful tool in reframing fears of inadequacy and keeping stress positive. Aim to change fixed statements into progress statements: ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’t yet.’ Sometimes it’s as easy as adding a ‘yet’ at the end.

Finding the positive in stress wherever you can keep you motivated to step up to the challenge, and allow stress to function optimally. Good stress isn’t just something that happens now and then. Good stress is something we cultivate and get better at.

Next time stress rears its head, aim to see the positive, the glass perverbially half full. A half-full attitude may not change the amount of stress you feel, but it will change how you feel it and what you do with it. Good stress is as accessible as how we let ourselves feel about it.


Looking for more help understanding how anxiety can be a tool rather than a burden? Check out my Anxiety Myths Navigator and discover the 12 key anxiety myths that are holding you back and how reframing your thinking can change your relationship with anxiety, and your life. Offered at a huge discount for a limited time, claim your spot here.


Alicia H. Clark, PsyD