Teach Me

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress: How Can You Tell the Difference?

Imagine that out of nowhere, your boss asks you to tackle a new project with a short deadline. It’s a stressful scenario — you’ve got other important responsibilities at work, and you have obligations outside of work, too. How will you juggle it all and still maintain your sanity?

This kind of situation — and some of the individual factors surrounding it — can teach us a lot about anxiety and stress. Believe it or not, that last-minute work assignment can actually be healthy. And yes, it can also be quite unhealthy, depending on some key factors.

We spoke with Marisa Menchola, PhD, a neuropsychology specialist with Banner Brain & Spine, about the differences between good stress and bad stress, and how to respond to those types of stresses when they inevitably come your way.

Good stress

Stress is a natural, adaptive, built-in response that prepares us for action, both physically and mentally, Dr. Menchola said. That stress response is there to temporarily increase our energy and focus — so we can tackle whatever challenge is there in front of us.

“Positive, healthy stress should feel like, ‘OK, this is going to be hard, but I can do this, here we go,’” Dr. Menchola described. You may have felt this when you got accepted into your top-choice college or when your child took their first step. (It’s ok if their second step filled you with dread …)

Generally, stress is good when it meets two basic criteria:

  1. What’s being asked of us feels doable
  2. We know the stress is temporary

Imagine that workplace scenario with your boss again: Do you have the time, energy and resources to complete the new project? And does the project have a reasonable, set end date? If all it takes is a little extra work for a few days, and you’ve got support at home to work those extra hours, and you can be done by next week, then chances are this stress can be the good kind.

Think of it this way: When stress leads to action, and you know that action leads to eventual satisfaction, you’re probably in good shape.

“Remember, positive stress may make you feel nervous or tense, but it should also make you focused, energized and invested,” Dr. Menchola said.

Bad stress

Now let’s imagine that work scenario again, with a few changes.

This time, your boss asks you to do something that’ll take multiple all-nighters in the same week. And you still need to drive your kids to school every morning and cook them dinner when they get home. And none of your other work assignments can go on the backburner while you’re finishing this new one. (Oh, and this new assignment is going to be recurring every month from now on.) The situation no longer feels doable — and it’s also not temporary. That’s bad stress.

Dr. Menchola outlined the following ways to tell if your stress is harmful:

  • It interferes with your functioning: You start making mistakes on things that are routine — like accidentally putting your keys in the fridge or forgetting to feed your dog. “If you’re up at 2 a.m., tossing, turning, and worrying, your stress is undermining your ability to function,” Dr. Menchola added.
  • It affects your health: You stop taking care of yourself — maybe you start relying on substances every night to “take the edge off,” or you’re picking up fast food every night because you’re too overwhelmed to get groceries and cook, or you’re skipping your workouts or morning walks.
  • You’re spending tons of time and energy on small things: “We often do this when we are trying to regain a sense of control, because we are stressed over things we cannot control,” Dr. Menchola explained.
  • You feel paralyzed: This is when small things seem impossible. For example, at a restaurant, maybe you genuinely agonize over which meal to order. Or you procrastinate on small household chores that pile up.
  • You isolate: You’re so stressed that you don’t want to see or talk to loved ones, you don’t ask for help, or you answer “fine” and change the subject when a friend asks how you’re doing.

Chronic stress

Dr. Menchola pointed out that people often believe chronic (aka long-lasting) stress is normal — “that going through life sleep-deprived, skipping meals, tossing and turning in the middle of the night, and having stress-induced headaches for years is just ‘the way things are,’ just what it’s like to be an adult, a parent, a worker, or a caregiver,” she explained.

Is chronic stress common? Yes. Is it OK? Well, not really.

When our stress is chronic or long term, that’s a signal that we’re in an unsustainable situation. Sometimes, it can also signal mental health disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder or depression. However, our chronic stress is not a signal to keep pushing through at all costs. Since the cost is usually our health.

“Chronic stress impacts almost every system in our bodies,” Dr. Menchola explained.Health problems such as gastrointestinal pain (indigestion, heartburn) can increase, as can the risk for cardiovascular disorders like hypertension, heart disease, and in serious cases even heart attack and stroke. It affects the immune system’s ability to fight infections. And if you have existing chronic conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or asthma, chronic stress can make them a lot worse.

“Our minds live in our bodies, and our thoughts, feelings, behaviors and physical functioning are intertwined,” Dr. Menchola said. “We cannot impact one without impacting the other.”

Improving our stress response

Because our minds and bodies are so connected, there are many things we can do to manage our stress response. The body sends signals to the brain, and vice versa, and we do have some choice in the signals they send.

Starting with the body, we can do things like:

  • Set a timer for the middle of each day to get out of our chair, stretch and get our body moving
  • Use a heating pad to relax our shoulders
  • Avoid using our phone right before bedtime
  • Learn to breathe deeply and steadily, to slow our heart rate and to relax our muscles when a stressful situation comes our way

It’s also important to work on what we think during stressful moments. When we’re stressed, we’re more likely to think harsh things about ourselves — “There’s something wrong with me” or “I’m so lazy” or “Nothing ever goes my way.” Instead, we can develop a gentler inner monologue, by actively countering these absolutes with more balanced thoughts like, “This is a hard situation and I’m trying my best.”

“We often remind people, ‘Do not believe everything you think,’ and this is particularly true when stressed,” Dr. Menchola said. “Reframing stressful situations helps prevent not just stress itself, but its negative effects on our health when stress is inevitable.”

Are you feeling stressed? To talk with a Banner behavioral health provider about ways to handle your stress and anxiety, visit bannerhealth.com. You may also want to read these related articles, written with help from other Banner Health experts:

Anxiety Behavioral Health Depression Neurosciences Stress Wellness Brain and Spine