Stress has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I stressed over news reports. Why was there so much bad stuff happening in the world? Why was it all about death — what happens when we die? Surely we can’t just stop existing, right?
And every age and stage came with new stress triggers: body image, exams, friends, love, loss, job interviews, politics, death (again)… I started taking antidepressant meds at age 19, which helps keep general feelings of anxiety under control, and since then I’ve become pretty good at tuning into my feelings.
I know what necessary steps — therapy, exercise, fresh air, rest, digital detoxes and so on — keep really grim attacks to a minimum.
But I still experience stress, just like most people. In the American Psychological Association’s 2019 survey, most adults reported higher levels of stress than they feel is healthy, and compared to the year before, “significant” stress has grown over specific issues — notably, presidential elections, health care, and mass shootings — rather than stress in general.
Being hyperaware of this doesn’t always set the wheels in motion to keep stress at bay. But recently, while I was on a deadline — a common occurrence, as a freelance writer — I could feel the panic setting in. Again, nothing unusual there.
Except that when I took a deep breath, moved away from my laptop for a moment and really thought about how I was feeling, I realized that the rush of stress hormones — adrenaline and cortisol — through my body wasn’t actually making me feel bad.
Was it possible that stress was making me feel… good?
As licensed clinical psychologist Catherine Jackson, PhD, says, “In fact, stress is essential to survival.”
Healthy stress, or positive stress, is known as “eustress,” a term coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye, and it comes with various benefits.
Dr. Jackson uses the examples of increased motivation to complete a task or succeed (hello, deadlines!), short-term immunity boosts, and increased resiliency, which tends to come in handy during future stressful situations.
“Another benefit is improved performance, especially for athletes, in which stress serves as a challenge rather than as anxiety,” she adds. Low levels of stress can also boost brain power, effecting temporary improvements in memory and learning.
The negative stress we’re familiar with though, the kind that becomes overwhelming or prolonged, is known as distress. It’s the kind of stress we think of when we have too many demands, or too much on our plate.
“Negative stress can harm the brain’s ability to function properly and result in difficulty recalling memories and forming new ones,” says Dr. Jackson. “When left unaddressed, or when not properly managed, stress may lead to a psychological diagnosis such as anxiety, depression, or panic disorder.”
My lightbulb moment at my desk, that late Monday night when my nerves jangled as the clock ticked, stayed with me long after I turned my article in with minutes to spare. For the first time in my life, with decades of experience of stress and mental ill health behind me, I was actually considering stress differently.
Dr. Jackson suggests the simple step of reframing the word “stress” to “pressure.” This could change how you go on to handle the situation. But it’s important to distinguish between them and not use the words interchangeably too often.
“Stress feels overwhelming and the goal is to reduce it,” Dr. Jackson explains, “whereas pressure is having something depend on your performance for a good outcome.”
In my case, my deadline ultimately has a positive outcome. It’s almost as if this pressure helped me get the job done. Does this mean it’s not actually stress? Am I so used to slapping a negative label on an overstrung feeling that I give stress more room in my life than it deserves?
“Pressure can feel more controllable than stress, which in turn can make you feel more in control of the situation, or more empowered to complete your task. The bigger picture is that this can help you keep your mental well-being and self-esteem in good shape.”
Knowing the difference between positive and negative stress can help you find ways to use it to your advantage. Dr. Jackson recommends considering the following:
- How do you react to different types of stress?
- What causes the most stress in your life?
- How can you work with it to ensure it doesn’t stop you from doing what you need to do?
In certain situations, it’s even possible to turn negative stress into positive stress — or even “downgrade” stress to pressure. “For example, when you know you have to perform, such as on a work project or by delivering a speech, you can make a plan to work on it little by little before the due date, or practice until you feel more comfortable.”
Figuring out that my habitual deadline stress was positive stress — or perhaps not even stress at all — hasn’t necessarily changed the way I work. Being up against the clock seems to get my creative juices flowing. But it has changed how I think about stress in general — and not just work related stress.
I’ve been able to identify positive and negative stresses in different areas of my life, like parenting, friendship and finances. I might never be able to eliminate negative stress entirely, but I can reframe how I think about it, and that’s a step in the right direction.
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer with bylines on Health, SELF, Refinery29, Glamour, The Washington Post, and many more. She lives in Scotland with her husband and six kids. Follow her on Instagram.