What is an example of positive stress?
Stress is a normal part of life.
Although we tend to think of it as a negative and use the word mostly to describe bad experiences, it really just refers to our body and mind’s response to any challenging demand. In reality, not all stress is bad for you. If you’re running a marathon, delivering a project under time pressure or making a public speech, stress hormones over a short-term period can boost your mood, energise you, improve your performance and actually help you push through to success.
When we see a stressful situation as an opportunity rather than a threat, this positive stress – also known as ‘eustress’, the opposite to ‘distress’ – can actually enhance our ability to achieve goals and conquer fears. As we harness this power over potential stressors without feeling overwhelmed, we can achieve change and personal growth. Far from harming us, stress can strengthen our mental health by reinforcing our sense of determination and agency over our own life.
According to UK mental health charity MIND, stress can help us to “take action, feel more energised and get results” ((How to manage stress))
What is stress?
Stress can be positive or negative. Of course, some common stressors are universally detrimental, like injury and illness, death of a family member, work or home conflicts, and financial or legal problems. Everyone has different levels of resilience and coping skills, but ultimately these experiences can, sadly, have a damaging impact on our wellbeing.
Despite this, mental health professionals increasingly recognise that there are also benefits to experiencing stress. Research published in the World Journal of Medical Sciences found that:
“Stress is a protective reaction that helps an organism survive in difficult conditions and environments. From a perception of stress as a reaction to strong negative environmental impacts […] researchers now […] see eustress as a favourable factor affecting health and longevity” ((The Eustress Concept: Problems and Outlooks))
So, what do we mean by “positive stress”?
Positive stress can give us feelings of excitement and anticipation about the possibility of achievement. There are all kinds of stressors, both in our personal and business lives, which are likely to have a beneficial effect on our wellbeing and mental health. For example:
- Starting a new job, getting a promotion, or retiring from work
- Getting married or starting a family
- Moving house
- Going on holiday
- Taking up new hobbies or learning new skills
We can appreciate positive stress when we challenge ourselves, push ourselves outside of our comfort zones, or have new experiences. These can be physical, mental, or emotional.
The terms ‘eustress’, meaning positive stress, was coined by the pioneering Hungarian scientist Dr Hans Selye, a Nobel Prize nominee, in 1974. In his work, Selye noted the difference between the stress that can lead us to a ‘healthy, positive, constructive result’, by enhancing our capability and motivation, and conversely the kind of stress which causes anxiety and disables our functioning.1
Further studies by psychologists Lazarus and Folkman suggest it’s our responses that determine whether we experience positive or negative stress. They described how internal and external factors like our personality, how healthy we are, and how much energy and support we have, can impact whether we perceive a situation as one of overwhelm or instead as an exciting challenge.2
How does our body react to stress?
Most of us are familiar with the term ‘fight or flight’ which describes our brain and body’s reaction to threats. Our hearts race, breath quickens and blood pressure rises as we’re flooded with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Meanwhile, glucose rushes to our muscles telling them to limber up, and oxytocin encourages us to seek connection with other humans who can help.
In small doses, we can experience these physiological changes as exhilarating rather than exhausting. They boost our energy, sharpen our focus, and give us the motivation to successfully respond to adversity.
What are the factors that help us respond positively to stress?
According to the UK’s Stress Management Society: “Being in control of your thoughts increases your ability to find solutions to challenging situations and to deal more effectively with stress. Master your mind and you will never wonder how to deal with stress again”. ((Assess your mindset))
Research into positive stress has shown a variety of common traits among individuals who cope well with stress, including:
- Belief in themself and confidence in their abilities
- A mindset of hope and positivity
- A perception that they have power and control in a situation
- High expectations of themself and others
What are the benefits of experiencing positive stress?
After a person experiences positive stress, their adaptive capacity increases. This means that these experiences literally re-wire individuals’ brains to succeed in the future. This has benefits for our self-esteem, our motivation and our strength in body and mind. Our resilience increases, and we have the confidence to push ourselves again when a new stressor arises.
Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, gave one of the most popular TED talks of all time in 2013, on the subject of positive stress. Her research highlighted that when people learn to reframe the way they think about stress, they become less anxious and more capable. McGonigal says:
“Can changing how you think about stress make you healthier? Science says yes. As a health psychologist, I no longer want to get rid of your stress, I want to make you better at stress. One of the simplest beliefs or thoughts that allows people to have this kind of positive challenge-response is simply: ‘I can handle this. I might not be able to control it, but I can handle this.”3
What about positive stress at work?
A study in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology about workplace stress found that employees react differently to the stressors in their job depending on their mindset. Employees with a positive stress mindset took constructive actions to improve their performance when they anticipated a large workload. Their planning and scheduling, along with seeing the challenge as a learning opportunity, led to more successful task outcomes and higher energy levels at the end of the working day.4
Meanwhile, it’s clear from Lepaya’s 2021 research that stress can cause major problems in business. The study highlighted the fact that more than two-thirds of European workers feel they need more input from their employer to develop their skills at dealing with work stress. Of course, feeling supported by colleagues and supervisors has a positive effect on employee mental health outcomes and wellbeing, which in turn improves companies’ productivity and profitability.5
How can I harness the power of positive stress and turn negative stress into an opportunity for growth?
If you’re wondering how to put this all into action, you can start by deciding to challenge yourself in your personal life. You could join a gym, or try out a new sport that pushes your boundaries. You could take on a volunteering or charity project, or join a club to learn new hobbies and skills.
When you’re starting to feel overwhelmed, one of the most effective techniques to calm your mind and help you regain control is to use positive affirmations like I am calm, I am relaxed, challenges help me grow, I can handle whatever comes my way, I am strong, I can accomplish anything.
The Mental Health Foundation suggests these ten steps to alleviate the harmful impacts of stressful situations:
- Recognise when stress is causing a problem and don’t ignore warning signs
- Think about where you can make changes, prioritise and delegate
- Build supportive relationships at work and home
- Eat healthily
- Reduce alcohol consumption as this affects feelings of anxiety
- Exercise regularly to boost your mood
- Take time to relax and practice self-care
- Practice meditation or mindfulness
- Get restful sleep
- Be kind to yourself6
Dr Hans Selye’s top five quotes about stress
- “Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one”
- “Stress is not necessarily something bad, it all depends on how you take it. The stress of exhilarating, creative successful work is beneficial”
- “If you want to live a long life, focus on making contributions”
- “Nothing erases unpleasant thoughts more effectively than conscious concentration on pleasant ones”
- “Man should not try to avoid stress any more than he would shun food, love or exercise”
In summary, stress is an unavoidable part of life for all of us, and it can be caused by both positive and negative situations. Sometimes even adverse events, if we’re able to manage them, can have a positive outcome. We can help ourselves by recognising the early signs of stress and taking action to minimise the demands or maximise our coping capacity. Positive stress or eustress can improve our performance, increase our determination and optimism, and train our brains to deal more effectively with challenges in the future.
- Hans Selye (1907–1982): Founder of the stress theory [↩]
- Stress and Coping Theories [↩]
- Kelly McGonigal: Can We Reframe The Way We Think About Stress? [↩]
- Mindset matters: the role of employees’ stress mindset for day-specific reactions to workload anticipation [↩]
- Two-thirds Of European Employees Experience Excessive Work-stress [↩]
- Stress [↩]