To most people at first glance, the term ‘positive stress’ might sound like an oxymoron. How can stress possibly be a positive thing?
In fact though, a little bit of stress is actually beneficial and even necessary for our optimum performance. Technically known as ‘eustress’, this is the type of stress that encourages you to get off of your behind when there’s work to be done and the kind of stress that helps you to focus when you need to work harder. Read on and we’ll examine what precisely eustress really is, as well as how you can leverage it in order to get the most out of yourself.
What Is Stress?
The first thing to recognize is that the human body is an incredible thing and that it’s very rare that any function should have no use or be completely negative. The same goes for stress – it’s not that it’s not useful, it’s just that it often crops up at the worst times.
What actually happens when you get stressed is that you become aware of something that you consider a potential threat – whether that’s a lion waiting in the bushes or an impending deadline on a credit card payment. Either way, your belief that this thing deserves your attention sends warning signs to the brain resulting in a flood of ‘excitatory’ neurotransmitters. Specifically, this increases your production of norepinephrine (adrenaline essentially), dopamine, cortisol and more. These all make us more switched on and alert and they redirect blood flow away from our immune system and digestion and to our muscles and brain. In other words, we become amped up and ready to fight – hence the term ‘fight or flight’.
Examples of Positive Stress
Fight or flight in itself is definitely not a negative thing. If you were faced with a lion in the bushes, or more likely a man with a gun, then this would be very positive stress as the increase in alertness and awareness would make you better able to react quickly and it would help to make you more focused. Imagine if you were in danger and your mind started wandering/thinking about dinner. It just doesn’t happen and that’s due to stress.
That’s one way you can experience ‘positive stress’. Unfortunately, most of the ‘stressors’ we encounter in modern life are more abstract and chronic. We are not ‘stressed’ by an impending danger but rather by an ongoing concern. This then means that we stay in this constantly worked up state and are unable to relax.
But even chronic stress can be positive stress in some cases. If you were completely ‘okay’ with being in debt for instance, then you would have no motivation to try and get yourself out of debt. Likewise, if you weren’t stressed by your horrible boss, you might never change careers to one you actual enjoyed.
The only reason that stress is negative, is that sometimes there’s nothing we can do about the stress. And occasionally, the stress isn’t relative to the problem – i.e. we overreact and get upset about things that shouldn’t cause us to panic.
Stress and Flow States
To demonstrate just how useful positive stress can be, it may be worth considering the term ‘flow state’. A flow state essentially is a state of mind in which we are so ‘in-tune’ with what’s going on around us that we’re able to react immediately and with perfect decision making skills. Often these states are associated with extreme sports where a snowboarder might be able to react to oncoming obstacles in a fraction of a second, exhibiting super-human reflexes in the face of death.
Essentially though, the neurochemistry associated with flow states is actually very similar to that associated with stress. Flow states in this regard are almost a case of stress ‘evolved’.
Using Positive Stress
The first way to start leveraging positive stress for benefits in your life then is to recognize it for what it is. Instead of seeing stress as the enemy, learn to think of it as your body going into to a kind of ‘high performance mode’ ready for difficult times ahead. Apart from anything else, this prevents you from becoming stressed about becoming stressed so that you’re not exacerbating the stress response.
Also important is to make sure that you don’t let stress get the better of you. If you’re finding it overwhelming, then try breathing deeply in order to activate your parasympathetic nervous system. This can help to slightly reduce any shakiness you might be experiencing and thereby let you remain calm at the same time as stressed.
Finally, bear in mind that you are most focused and motivated when you are slightly stressed. If you’re stressed now and there’s something you can do about it – then now would be the time to take action. If that means studying for an exam then you’ll find that a little positive stress helps you to stay more focused on the study notes. If it means dealing with debt then you’ll find that positive stress prevents you from putting it off any longer. And if you do put off the thing that’s causing you stress, note that it will only get worse. That’s because you can’t help but tell yourself it needs to be solved as soon as possible – don’t fight that urge.
As for negative stress that you can’t address. Think of this as a sign that you need to change something in your life whether that be your job or your financial situation – you should never have to live with stress. And if that’s not the problem, then try readdressing the way you interpret whatever it is that’s making you stressed.