Can Stress Be Your Friend?

If you had to pick a statement to sum up how you feel about stress,


A) Stress is harmful and should be avoided, reduced, and managed.


B) Stress is helpful and should be accepted, utilized, and embraced.


Which one would you pick?


In a 2014 survey, 85 percent of Americans agreed that stress has a negative impact on health, family life, and work.


But. In a 2013 Stanford survey of CEOs, vice presidents, and general managers, 51 percent of participants said they did their best work while under stress.


Is stress your best friend? Or your worst enemy?


Research shows there are 2 different types of stress: good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress).


While the physiological signs of eustress and distress can be almost identical (i.e. increased heart rate, breathing and energy), the psychological signs of good and bad stress are different - including how they affect focus, motivation and performance.


Author of the international bestseller "The Upside of Stress", and health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, Kelly McGonigal says people generally have two mindsets about stress.


Mindset 1: Stress Is Harmful.

  1. Experiencing stress depletes my health and vitality.

  2. Experiencing stress debilitates my performance and productivity.

  3. Experiencing stress inhibits my learning and growth.

  4. The effects of stress are negative and should be avoided.

Mindset 2: Stress Is Enhancing.

  1. Experiencing stress enhances my performance and productivity.

  2. Experiencing stress improves my health and vitality.

  3. Experiencing stress facilitates my learning and growth.

  4. The effects of stress are positive and should be utilized.


McGonigal argues embracing the second one is the first step the experiencing the benefits.


The stress response is an instinct you should suppress in all but the most physical of crises, like escaping a burning building or rescuing a drowning child. For all the other challenges you face, the stress response is a waste of energy that gets in the way of successful coping. This is the mismatch theory of the stress response—it worked out for our ancestors, but not for us. You, poor human, are crippled with a stress response that has little adaptive function in the modern world.

Your might have heard, the body responds to stress through fight-or-flight. But there's research about how the body can respond to stress in many ways such as post-traumatic growth. The optimal response to stress, according to McGonigal, is a challenge response.


Comparing threats and challenges, your body will respond very differently.


Let's look at the cardiovascular system.


During a threat response, the body is anticipating physical harm. To minimize the blood loss, your blood vessels constrict. The body also ramps up inflammation and mobilizes immune cells to prepare you to heal quickly.


During a challenge response, your body responds more like how it does during physical exercise. Because you aren’t anticipating harm, the body feels safe maximizing blood flow to give you the most possible energy. Unlike in a threat response, your blood vessels stay relaxed. Your heart also has a stronger beat—not just faster, but with greater force.


Your stress response affects how well you perform under pressure.


During a threat response, because your primary goal is to protect yourself, and your emotions will likely include fear, anger, self-doubt, or shame. During a challenge response, you may feel a little anxious, but you also feel excited, energized, enthusiastic, and confident. Your primary goal is not to avoid harm, but rather to go after what you want.


These differences have been studied in students, surgeons and many business settings. Not to mention, when you have a challenge response, the brain is more likely to learn resilience from a stressful experience.


But you have to be aware of the stress response you're choosing. Other responses discussed in the book include turning fear into excitement, cultivating a sense of meaning and trying out a "tend-and-befriend" response.


I'll ask you to pick a statement again - to sum up how you feel about stress,


A) Stress is harmful and should be avoided, reduced, and managed.


B) Stress is helpful and should be accepted, utilized, and embraced.


Which one would you pick? Let us know in the comments below!


Check out this week's video on whether stress can be your friend: