Good Stress vs. Bad Stress: How to Strike a Balance


From the moment you wake up in the morning until the time you go to sleep at night, you encounter stress. And lots of it.

Stress getting out the door on time. Stress in the traffic jam on the way to work. Stress at the office, competing for a promotion with your co-worker. Stress when you open your email inbox. Stress when you argue with your spouse or kids. Stress when your phone pings away all night long. Stress at the start line of the 5k you’ve been training for all season.

It’s a safe bet that you could name at least a dozen more sources. It’s inescapable. Even if you’ve got the balancing act all worked out, and you’re crushing it in all facets of life, stress doesn’t end. It usually gets worse.

This concept is perfectly explained by the work of Hungarian endocrinologist Hans Selye in the 1920s and 30s, says Ken Yeager, Ph.D., a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program.

“Selye came up with the idea of general adaptation syndrome,” says Yeager. “Basically, this is where you do things, you have success, you get more responsibility, you work harder—and it goes up and up until you hit the point of burnout.”

Ah, yes. Burnout. You know the feeling: You are running on empty, and your cortisol levels are probably through the roof. Cortisol (a.k.a. “the stress hormone”) is all sorts of bad news—it’s responsible for a host of negative health effects, including reduced thyroid function, increased blood pressure, impaired memory and cognition, and even a decrease in bone mass and muscle function. Yikes.

It’s tough to manage stress, because even positive stressors can feel overwhelming. Yeager points to examples like weddings and job promotions. Both are amazing, yet both are enormously stressful.

The ultimate key to stress survival then? According to Yeager, there are a few.

Eliminate the Stressors You Don’t Need

You’ve got to free up mental space to tackle your positive stressors, so figure out what you can do without. “This is about identifying stressors that are taking a toll on you, and might be masquerading as positive stressors,” Yeager says.

Constantly feeling a need to check in on social media? Consider taking a break. See if your life becomes better or worse without a status update feed in your face. Or if you’re always covering up purchases or biting back about your spouse’s annoying habits, try letting go of all little white lies and deceptions. Even the most seemingly-innocuous stressors can build up, Yeager insists.

Make Sure You’re Well-Rested

Quality sleep makes a big difference in how you deal with stress—Yeager knows this from personal experience. “Awhile back, I was waking up multiple times a night and getting, well, really poor sleep,” he says. To correct the situation Yeager followed the techniques of acclaimed mind-body doc Herb Benson. He started to meditate—first for 10 minutes a night before bed, and then for 15 minutes, and began tracking his sleep with Fitbit. Initially, his sleep efficiency was a measly 72 percent and he was restless 16 times a night. After using relaxation techniques, he was eventually able to up his sleep efficiency to 92 percent with very minimal restlessness.

The turnaround in mood and alertness was huge, and Yeager can’t emphasize enough the importance of getting quality sleep. “Before bed, make sure you turn off the notifications on your phone,” says Yeager. “Not only does that small burst of blue light mess up your circadian rhythm, but if you’re reading an email just before you go to sleep, the last thing on your mind will be your to-do list.” (Cue the nightmares.)

Strike a Balance Between Dread & Pleasure

Balance and moderation are two terms that are continuously heralded as the highest pinnacles of healthy living. But few figure out how to achieve these elusive goals. “Every activity in life, from calling Aunt Ethel in Poughkeepsie to getting 10,000 steps a day, is either going to give you energy or take it away,” says Yeager. “We all compete for energy every single day, and we don’t even realize it. We have to figure out what our energy sponges are, and what our energizers are. You have to find the balance between dread and pleasure.”

Every time your battery is drained, you need to recharge it. If a work project is dragging you down, maybe you need a weekend getaway to fill you up. If that phone call to your dear Aunt felt like a marathon, treat yourself to your favorite healthy dinner tonight. The goal is to seek out a 1:1 ratio of dread to pleasure. You may not totally get there most days, but with more awareness of your energizers and your energy sponges you can get close.

If you wake up everyday and feel like you can’t get out of bed, that’s a huge hint you have too many stressors in life that are draining your energy—and your balancing act is out of whack, says Yeager. Simply start taking care of yourself: identify the needless worries and seek that middle ground of moderation. Soon, you’ll feel much better.


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  • It’s true everyone has stress. I want to learn how to be better at working through stressful situations mindfully with out hitting the panic mode. I watched a TED talk once about stress (I don’t remember who the speaker was) that gave an example of athletes in competition. Athletes with positive thoughts who are always reaching for that extra effort and believing in them selves have less chance of reaching the panic mode in competition and as a result there blood vessels do not restrict allowing more oxygen to reach their muscles, brain and other vital organs.

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