“Good” Stress and “Bad” Stress: What’s the Difference?
Media reports and academic articles often warn us about the negative effects of stress. There’s good reason for this, too. But did you know that, under the right conditions, some types of short-term stress can protect and even benefit us? Today Lili Kókai, health and medical psychologist (MSc), clarifies the difference between “good” and “bad” stress and why stress can affect each of us differently.
Some events – a relocation, a heavy workload, an illness – may be experienced as stressful, which can have various mental and physical consequences (e.g. anxiety, depression, fatigue, body aches). We all react to events differently though, and what is stressful to one person may not feel that way to someone else. Whether an event will have a “positive” or “negative” effect on YOU depends on several factors, like your individual resilience to stress, your previous life experiences, and the way you assess and approach stress.
As a starting point, it helps to understand the two main types of stress, which are differentiated by how long they last: short-term or long-term.
Understanding short-term stress
Short-term stress is an important part of our survival system, and may last from minutes to hours. Short-term stress is a key part of our “freeze, fight or flight” reaction to danger. These responses are ancient, but may benefit us in modern day-to-day situations as well!
One of the adaptive functions of short-term stress is to make us vigilant to cope with a stressor. For example, a person caught in a potentially life-threatening situation, like a fire, could use the surge of energy to react quickly by locating and using a fire extinguisher. Short-term stress also energises us to get away from the stressor. In this example, the person could use the rush of energy to flee from the fire as quickly as possible.
The upsides of short-term stress
If you are reasonably healthy, and have enough time to relax in between stressful periods, short-term stress is not likely to lead to negative health consequences.
On the contrary: while the experience of sweaty palms and a pounding heart may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there may be some benefits! For example, the short-term stress – or “nerves” – of presenting to colleagues, or participating in a sports competition, may enhance your mental and/or physical performance, especially if you are trained or practised at the task at hand.
Short-term stress may also boost your immune system during infection, vaccination, surgery, wound healing and cancer, aiding your body’s recovery. You can read more about this in an interview in one of Stanford Medicine’s newsletters.
Understanding long-term stress
Long-term stress, which can last anywhere from weeks to years, is not part of our survival system; it does not serve an adaptive function. It can be caused by a long-term stressor in a person’s life, such as working long hours in a high-pressure environment day after day, or being a full-time carer of a sick loved one.
This kind of stress can also be caused by multiple short-term stressors, such as being handed large work-related tasks on a regular basis, especially if you do not have enough time to recharge in between.
Importantly, resilience to long-term stress varies from individual to individual. Our previous life experiences also influence the way we react to stressors – people who have lived through trauma may develop a stress response syndrome, making them vulnerable to experiencing strong stress reactions to moderately severe stressors in the long term.
The risks of long-term stress
Some of us can continue functioning normally under long-term stress. For others, prolonged stress can cause lasting damage. Chemical imbalance in the brain caused by long-term stress can lead to the emergence or worsening of depression, and related mood and anxiety disorders.
Long-term stress may also make us more vulnerable to certain infections, weaken our immune systems, increase ageing, affect brain function, and worsen conditions like heart disease and some types of cancer. Learn more here.
Understand YOUR stress
We all experience stress in some or other form. The key is to understand your unique experience of stress. This gives you the chance to accept yourself and seek coping tools that work for you…
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