7 Ways to Harness Positive Stress

36197499 - young multi ethnic business people group walking standing and top view

In the 1930s, Hans Selye coined the term stress to mean “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” Whether good or bad, stress is inescapably about the anticipation and need for change. Its job is to generate enough discomfort that we will pay attention and adjust our behavior.

But how we think about stress, and our need to change, can go a long way in determining how stress impacts us. And perhaps counterintuitively, the more responsibility and control we feel, the less negatively stress will impact us.

Working effectively with stress requires taking control of our responsibility and our attitude. Passivity is a one way pass to distress, whereas stepping into the stress is the gateway to good stress. Keeping these 6 points in mind can help you take control where you can, and keep stress positive.

1. Stress is an invitation to change, and maybe even a nudge. When demands for change cause pressure on our resources, stress is felt, which creates discomfort and a pressure to reduce it. Like with anxiety and pain, its job is to rally focus and energy to solve the problem at hand.

2. Stress means we care. Whether stress is good or bad, it is impossible to feel its pressure if we don’t care. We have to care about the demands to allow them to impact and pressure us. Tuning into what we care about, and what’s positive about a situation, can be a powerful way to maintain a healthy relationship with stress, and keep it fueling positive growth.

3. Stress doesn’t have to feel positive to be positive. Good stress can be a sense of excitement and positive momentum, or it could be an uncomfortable pressure that keeps us alert and on our toes. Stretching ourselves to adjust to the demands of our life is part of how we adapt and grow. Like straining muscles to make them stronger and more efficient, stress isn’t comfortable but can deliver results we want.

4. Believe in yourself and your resources: Trusting that you have the resources to meet a challenge allows stress to stay positive. Research at Harvard from 2012 confirmed that perception about resources determined how positive or negative stress would be. Even if you don’t know how you’ll handle adjusting to the stress you are facing, know that you can.

5. Labeling stress can help keep it positive. A sense of control is a key way to maintain a positive experience of stress and anxiety and mitigate distress, and can be as accessible as labeling your emotions. Simply naming your feelings of stress can promote a sense of control, and can lower distress according to science.

6. How you think about it matters: Perhaps the most important strategy to maintaining positive stress is to keep a positive attitude about it. A compelling large scale study has found that how we think about stress defines how it impacts us. If we focus on negative pressure, its discomfort and our worry about handling it, we will feel it more negatively, whereas if we think about stress as motivating, positive and fueling productive problem-solving for the things we care about, we can use it to our advantage to fuel positive growth.

7. Aim for “interval training” with restorative periods of rest: In order to make the most out of stress positive benefits, make sure to rest and replenish yourself whenever you can. Stress works best when it is experienced in acutely in discrete intervals separated by rest and repair. Like with fitness training, exertion is most effective when there are periods of relative rest between intervals.

Like harnessing our focus to persist through a tough workout or challenge, stress offers us the opportunity to use its energy effectively to promote growth and expansion. We don’t stretch and grow without stress, and strengthening ourselves is seldom comfortable. But discomfort helps us expand our capacity and resources to meet life’s ever-changing demands.

Harnessing stress can be a powerful tool to trigger growth, as well as build the strength we need and want to be our best.


For more help with managing stress and anxiety, check out my anxiety blog, download my free ebook, or sign up for my newsletter.



Alicia H. Clark, PsyD