People frequently say that some stress is good for us, that it's a motivator, and that without it we would be bored. This notion of "good stress" was first proposed by stress research pioneer Hans Selye in 1976, and it was an attempt to paint himself out of a corner.
Starting in the late 1930's, Selye had been promoting his theory that stress is a physical reaction to noxious stimuli like poisons, injuries, relationship problems — anything that triggered the stress response. Selye spent decades traveling the world, teaching people his stress concept. Before this time, people experienced stress, of course, but it wasn't something the medical community studied. Our ubiquitous use of the word today is largely due to this one tireless man.
But then fellow researchers threw Selye a curve ball. What did he make of the fact that positive physical experiences, like sex or sports, could also result in the production of stress hormones (albeit on a smaller scale)? Selye was confounded, but quickly came up with a solution. Stress wasn't just a negative experience, he said. It could go either way, like temperature. So, he said, you experienced distress when the stress was negative (anger, frustration, etc.) and eustress — another Selye neologism — during positive experiences like sex.
In his 1976 book Stress without Distress, Selye encouraged people to maximize their eustress and minimize their distress. He called stress "the spice of life," saying it was unavoidable, and that we wouldn't want to avoid it even if we could, because some of it is pleasurable. Ever since then, we've been telling ourselves that some stress is good for us and that it motivates us. We say this because Selye, the world's leading authority on stress, told us it was so.
But have you ever heard anyone say, "I had great sex last night. Boy, was it stressful!" Probably not. The concept of eustress never really stuck in mainstream society or the stress research community, partly because that's not how we naturally think of stress.
Another reason it hasn't stuck is because Selye's whole concept of stress was fundamentally flawed. It turns out that stress is not, as Selye proposed, a physical response to stimuli. That would be described as homeostasis. Stress — the negative emotional state so many of us struggle with — is produced psychologically. In my earlier posts I explained why this is so, and why stress researchers who recognized this were unable to overturn Selye's message. He had simply done too good a job spreading the word globally, and most of us are only now learning the truth about where stress really comes from and how to eliminate it more effectively.
When people talk about "good stress," what they're really referring to is stimulation. Being stimulated is good. It helps you get things done and keeps you focused and engaged. But any stress you experience, instead of enhancing your performance, diminshes it. What you want to do for peak performance is maximize your stimulation and minimize your stress.
So the next time you hear someone saying "Some stress is good for us," don't believe it. Stress has been linked to 75 to 90% of medical conditions, and it inihbits performance in a number of ways. Stress is not the spice of life any more than arsenic is. And without it, you won't feel bored. To the contrary, you'll be so much calmer and more productive that you'll wish you'd learned to live without stress long ago.
Andrew Bernstein is the founder of ActivInsight, a process that is changing the way individuals and organizations understand stress and resilience. His new book, The Myth of Stress, reveals how ActivInsight quickly transforms problems such as relationships, weight loss, money, success, heartbreak, divorce, and more. You can ask Andrew questions in the comments here, in his Facebook group, or through twitter @mythofstress.