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Can Good Things Cause Stress?

Stress can actually be good for you.

Key points

  • Stress can be bad or good—the physical sensation is inherently the same.
  • How one thinks about stress is always within their control and determines their experience of it.
  • Focusing on the positivity of stress can keep a person functioning at their best.
Emma Dau/Unsplash
Source: Emma Dau/Unsplash

People sometimes wonder if good things can cause stress. The answer is: of course!

Think of the excitement of watching your favorite sports team compete, the thrill of a new promotion, or even the delight of a new hobby or relationship. Stress has come to be associated with such negative experiences that people are often surprised to learn that it can be positive too, both being caused by good things and good for you.

Thinking about something exciting, engaging with something new, working toward a valued goal or peak experience can all create stress. Even waiting for something exciting can cause stress. As we saw in the old Heinz commercial, anticipating something good can be uncomfortable.

Simply going on vacation or planning something fun can be stressful to some degree because we are activated, engaged, and focused. Even if it’s for good, we feel pressured by our to-do list and respond with productive action. This is stress.

Tension is uncomfortable and causes stress to our body, but this doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, or that this kind of tension is only reserved for negative events. It can happen with positive things too.

5 things to understand about good stress

Here are five key ideas to understand about good stress, and how good things can cause it.

  1. Good stress has a technical name: Good stress isn’t a new idea or a new thing. Hans Selye, the grandfather of stress, so believed in the existence of positive stress that he coined a name for it more than 50 years ago: eustress. Websters defines eustress as, “a positive form of stress having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being.”
  2. The experience of stress is the same‚ whether good or bad: Recognize that excitement is a state of tension. We are activated, edgy, and tense with excitement. It is palpable. A child being surprised on his birthday with a favorite toy will be in a tense state of joy; an athlete ready to start a competition will be excited to prove themselves. Consider how your body feels (on the edge of your seat) when you are watching your favorite sports team compete. Even if you are enjoying yourself, chances are your muscles are tense, your heart is somewhat elevated, and you are intensely focused and engaged. This is stress, and this is how you interact with something exciting.
  3. Perceiving the situation as positive is the key to keeping stress positive: Positive stress has to do with seeing the stress as useful toward a positive outcome or important opportunity. Planning a vacation, working hard toward a positive goal, and adjusting to a new and better life situation all involve efforts toward a positive goal or outcome. There is adjustment, effort, and pressure, but the desired outcome can keep us focused on the positivity of stress.
  4. You are in control: What makes stress positive or negative has more to do with how you think about it than what it actually is. Stress is fundamentally neutral—“the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change,” according to Selye’s original definition. Its job is to generate enough discomfort that we will pay attention and adjust our behavior to what is required. This is stress. How we think about it determines whether it’s good or bad, and this is always in our control.
  5. Practice makes perfect: Research shows the more positive experiences you have with stress, the more likely you will be to view and respond to stress positively. The more we practice using stress to focus and motivate our efforts toward a positive outcome, the better we get at it.

The excitement of a vacation, meeting an important milestone, taking a test, seeing a beloved family member, or even waiting to get home after a long day can generate stress. There is tension in the excitement and anticipation, and the intensity of the experience can be surprisingly uncomfortable. But thinking about stress as positive, and focusing on the opportunities and advantages, can help ensure stress stays positive.

The more positively we view stress, the more likely we can use it as the powerful tool it is to forge growth and positive change.

Looking for more help with stress and anxiety? Check out my book, Hack Your Anxiety.

More from Alicia H. Clark Psy.D.
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