Stress – Can it Be Useful?

Written by Tamara Willner
Medically reviewed by 

4 min read
Last updated November 2019

From a nerve-racking presentation at work to running around after a busy family, we often see stress in a negative light. In extreme cases, we associate chronic stress with trauma, which can have lasting effects on our physical and mental health. However, recent science suggests that stress isn’t all bad!

Good vs. bad stress

There are two types of stress, namely distress and eustress. Distress (most commonly mentioned) makes us feel out of control and anxious, and will most likely negatively impact the immune system in the long term. Eustress, however, is stress that motivates and excites us. It can improve our short-term performance and is similar to a fight-or-flight response before an exam or a race.

Understanding the differences between the two types of stress can help us manage stressful situations in our daily lives. In a TED talk on ‘how to make stress your friend’, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal posed the question: ‘Is it merely the belief that stress is bad for us that negatively affects us?’

From one particular study, she noted that people who believed stress to be harmful to their health were 43% more likely to die from health-related issues, compared with those who didn’t. In fact, those who experienced higher stress levels but didn’t see it as detrimental to their health had less risk of premature death than those who had little stress in the first place.

Illustration showing study that suggested perceiving stress to be harmful to your health is harmful to your health when under high stress.

Key points:

  • Distress is the ‘bad’ stress that makes us feel out of control and might impact our health in the long term.
  • Eustress is the ‘good’ stress that motivates and excites us and might improve our short-term performance in tasks.

Can we change our physical stress response?

Stress responses are coordinated in the brain. When faced with a stressful event, the brain will signal to other parts of the body to take action. This response stimulates the release of hormones such as adrenaline, causing our heart rate to increase and our blood vessels to constrict. Consequently, blood pressure increases and oxygen is pumped around the body more effectively.

In the study mentioned above, participants who didn’t believe that stress was harmful to their health, experienced an increase in heart rate but their blood vessels didn’t constrict. This response mirrors what happens when we feel joy, highlighting that we can actually change our body’s stress response with our beliefs. If you view stress as a challenge that your body is preparing for, rather than a threat, your body will respond differently.

Kelly McGonigal also considers evidence that suggests how we act can help to manage stress. This involves the role of the hormone oxytocin. This hormone has been nicknamed ‘the cuddle hormone’ as it’s released when we experience physical contact, like a hug.

Not many people realise that oxytocin is actually a stress hormone. It’s released during the stress response and motivates us to seek support and social contact. Oxytocin also plays a role in keeping our blood vessels relaxed and promotes heart strengthening during times of stress. This means a human connection can actually increase resilience to such stress!

The study that prompted this idea tracked 1,000 people from the USA aged between 34-93 years and asked them two questions: 1) ‘How much stress have you experienced in the past year?’ and 2) ‘How much time have you spent helping out people in your community?’. The results suggest that stressful events actually increased the risk of premature death from long-term health problems by 30%. However, this increased risk was not found in those who spent time caring for others – highlighting that caring behaviours can also improve resilience to stress.

Key points:

  • The usual stress response causes our heart to race and our blood vessels to constrict.
  • Studies suggest that those who believe stress is not harmful to their health experience a physical response to stress that mirrors the physical response to joy.
  • Evidence suggests engaging in caring behaviours can improve resilience to stress.

Take home message

  • How we think about stress and how we act both considerably affect how our body responds to stress.
  • There is ‘good’ (eustress) and ‘bad’ (distress) stress.
  • When you feel under pressure, try to see it as good stress rather than bad stress, like a challenge that your body is rising to, rather than a threat.
  • Practising caring behaviours, such as calling a friend each week, can help to improve resilience to stress.
  • Stress might not be something to fear after all.
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