5 Surprising Reasons Stress Is Good For You

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In spite of how bad stress can feel and prevailing fears about it, there are important ways stress is good for you. Stress is not always a bad thing. In the 1930s, Hans Seleye coined the term stress to refer to “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” He made it clear that stress could be either good or bad, with effects varying considerably. Later in his career, he emphasized that stress has more to do with how we react to it than what happens to us.

Science continues to support Selye’s theories more than 40 later.  A recent large scale study found that how we think about stress, not its severity, determines its impacts on us. People who reported moderate levels of stress but believed it was harmful died significantly sooner than those who reported higher levels of stress but believed its effects benign. Viewing stress as healthy can make it so.

Keeping stress positive in your life starts with seeing the benefits wherever you can. And some stress is actually good for us. Understanding these 5 benefits of stress can help jumpstart the positive attitude you need to keep it working for you.

1. Stress helps you focus. With unprecedented demands for our attention and focus, stress is a final tool to help steer focus to the things that matter most. For example, concern about an approaching deadline can keep us on task and avoiding dangerous distractions.

2. Acute stress can protect you physically. It boosts the immune system and helps support physical resilience. Ever wonder why you get sick just when exams are over or you complete a big project? The stress hormone cortisol has been hard at work keeping you healthy during the crisis, one of its primary functions.

3. Your brain gets stronger after acute stress. A recent study at Berkeley found that acute stress can stimulate neural growth in the area of the brain associated with memory and focus. Stress related neural growth appeared to aid in task success in subjects up to two weeks later.

4. Stress can fuel optimal performance. According to noted cofounder of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, optimal performance is an activity state known as Flow. While Flow becomes intrinsically reinforcing, it is importantly fueled by positive stress. Channeling stress into productive action can trigger a sense momentum that can be optimal, even if it isn’t comfortable or relaxing.

5. Stress invites a sense of control and agency. Pressure from stress is often felt externally. Many stressful circumstances are also beyond our control. According to science, a sense of control helps mitigate distress under stress. There is always room to take control, especially when it comes to how we think about stress. The more control you can identify and seize, the more positive stress will be.

Stress can be uncomfortable, and too much of it can be too much. But stress can also be good for us if we let it. Science continues to illustrate how much control we have over the impact of stress: How we think about it matters. Recognizing stress as a healthy challenge can protect you from its potentially damaging effects.

Seeing the benefits of stress can also help to maintain a positive mindset. Thinking positively about stress can keep it working for us, even at high levels. At its best, this is how stress expands our capacity and promotes positive growth.


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