How to Win the Battle of Good Stress over Bad Stress

January 2, 2016 · by Allison Porter · Filed Under Choices, Previous · Leave a Comment

healthy stressYou know that feeling. You look at the time and suddenly realize you are late. You feel a rush of adrenaline and spring to action.

What is happening in your body as you bolt forward is a stress response. Your brain perceives danger and responds physically: with increases in adrenaline and hormones like cortisol.  You are ready for fight or flight.

Most stressful aspects of our work doesn’t actually require a physical response.  That’s why stress is so often talked about as being bad for you.  Because all that unused energy has to go somewhere, it can start eating away at your physical and mental well being.  But not all stress IS bad.  It gets you going. It increases your focus. It generates energy to take on a challenge.

The goal then is not to defeat stress altogether. The one battle we do need to win, though, is the battle of good stress over bad stress.

Knowing good from bad

Go back to that feeling of realizing you are late. Feeling the stress response is helpful for focus and energy; but feeling too much of a stress response is not. At a certain level, the feeling tips over into the negative, creating feelings of panic, even physical jitters and mind-racing.  You become less efficient and more prone to make mistakes.  Focus and energy – good.  Panic and disorganization – bad.

Our judgment about what is good and what is bad stress gets distorted over time.  It is easy to get acculturated to living with high stress, even creating stress through procrastination just to feel that boost.  People become “urgency addicts” and “crisis junkies” who seek out and even thrive off unhealthy levels of stress, sometimes without even recognizing the negative effects. Or worse, they see the impact on themselves and others, and just accept it as part of the work.

Getting it “just right”

 Too little: It’s hard to be productive or achieve our potential if we are feeling little or no stress. We have all had coworkers who appear to lack urgency, who have never met a deadline they couldn’t slide past.   Some people are afraid of being “stressed” and so take on roles below their ability just to avoid bad stress.

Too much: On the other end, traumatic or prolonged stress is damaging. We’ve seen unmanaged stress eat away at stomach linings, teeth, and marriages, increase addictive behavior and reduce social skills. Bad stress increases hypertension, heart attacks, strokes and depression. It can suppress immune systems and prevent sleep. Bad stuff.

Just right: Moderate, periodic stress helps us be goal oriented, anticipate obstacles, focus on results, and push ourselves out of our comfort zone. It keeps the job interesting and makes winning feel good.

So go ahead and ask people to up their game. Raise the stakes. Raise the standards. Set an audacious goal. Share difficult feedback. Lean in to a challenge. Just remember to also celebrate, appreciate, breathe, kick back, run downhill, take vacations, and do work you love.

4 Strategies to Win the Battle 

The key to winning the battle of good stress over bad stress is to work both ends of the equation:  increase the good stress and lower the bad:

  1.  Seek out meaningful challenges – good stress is generated by good work, meaningful and challenging, where risks are worth it and both failure and winning are possible.
  2.  Get enough sleep and exercise – your body will discharge the negative energy generated by moderate to high stress when you exercise. Sleep is your source for resilience and repair. Let your body do the work for you.
  3.  Practice mindfulness  – learning how to use your breath and posture to come into the present moment is enormously helpful. These tools work in a moment of spiking stress to get you back to your best self.
  4.  Find a mirror – we are often the last person to know when we have tipped over into unhealthy levels of stress or if we have stopped challenging ourselves to be our best. Ask people around you to let you know when they see the signals.


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