Cutting-Edge Leadership

The best in current leadership research and theory, from cultivating charisma to transforming your organization

When Is Stress Bad and When Is it Good?

Can stress lead to better performance? Can too much kill you?

We typically think of stress, particularly stress at work or at home, as a bad thing, but stress itself is neither good nor bad. It depends.

Stress is often defined as a physiological and/or psychological reaction to something that is perceived to be threatening or taxing. We most often think of it in negative terms, but the truth is that stress can be either good or bad. For example, research has shown that small amounts of stress can be motivating. We can think of this sort of stress as a challenge.

Of course, taken to extremes (as with most things), stress can be bad and harmful. The largest harm is the relationship between negative stress, what might better be termed “distress,” and stress related illnesses, including elevated blood pressure, heart disease, and other so-called “stress-related illnesses” (e.g., migraines, ulcers, etc.).  [See more about extremes here]

When it comes to the psychological reactions that we have to stress it is important to remember that perceptions play a huge part. Studies of persons who seem to be particularly resistant to stress suggest that these “hardy” individuals, are more likely to view stressful situations as a challenge and that they derive satisfaction and life meaning from taking on and overcoming these challenges.

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The key is to make “stress” work for us – to use small amounts of stress as a challenging motivator, and to develop strategies to deal with stress when it turns into distress. Cognitive reframing, systematic relaxation, counseling and having supportive social networks are all used in coping with stress when it becomes taxing.

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Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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