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Good Stress Versus Bad Stress

Everyone knows that stress is an unavoidable part of life. On a daily basis, and even more detailed – on an hourly and minute-by-minute basis, there is almost always some stress that we can focus on if we choose to. And when we’re not actively choosing what to focus on, our automatic thinking processes do the job for us and decide whether we should be focusing on a particular stress or not. (These automatic thinking processes, which are a normal part of life and are present in every person, don’t always make the right decision, as you might have guessed.)

The 2 parts of stress that make a difference and that are worth discussing are 1: the emotional effect they have on us and how they impact our quality of life, and 2: the practical aspect of the stressful thoughts/feelings.

In other words, if someone is feeling stressed/thinking stressful thoughts, they will be considerably less emotionally comfortable and healthy, which, if they are not in a great emotional state to begin with, may place them in a really undesirable situation from a mental health point of view.

And, the more a person’s focus is dedicated to topics that create stress, the less able they will be to focus on other aspects of life that may be more important to that person; they cannot devote their full energies to those things that are important, because their energies are being spent on thinking about stressful material.

(That’s an example of when even “good” stress (defined below), is bad – if it is being focused on at the wrong time, i.e., when the person’s interests would be better served focusing on other aspects of life that have the potential of getting them better or more important results, then even if a stress is good, it is detracting from the person’s ability to focus on the aspects of life that would be to their maximal advantage at that moment.

Good stress is stress that gets a person to have a better life by engaging in behaviors that are helpful, that will get the person closer to his her goals, that will make the person’s life easier or more effective in some way, or we’ll do something else that will help the person get closer to accomplishing something that is important to them. For example, if a student has an important test coming up, and that stress of doing well motivates him/her to use their time & energy to study instead of play video games, then it could easily be said that that stress is “good stress”. That’s a simple example, but there are many others of many types where it’s not quite as simple and it’s not nearly as black and white as the test example I just gave.

Often, that’s a major part of psychotherapy, helping a person to determine whether a particular stress is good, bad, and whether it is affecting the person’s life in a way that is overall positive or negative.

Bad stress is stress that does not accomplish anything positive but does cause negative things to happen. For example, research has shown beyond any doubt that excess stress impacts a person’s health negatively. So, if a person is worrying about something that they have no control over and it is affecting their health, that is a simple example that can be used to define bad stress. It is accomplishing nothing good but is creating negative consequences.

Again though, it can be more complex than that and some stressors can be bad, yet have some “good” component to them, and it is often the job of the Clinical Psychologist to help the patient understand the stress and analyze it, sometimes going as far as to make two columns to categorize the good and the bad aspects of the stress, so that they are plain to see.

At that point, a cost-benefit analysis can be done with the patient, and the patient can decide whether they want to be focusing on that stressor or not at that time. I actually spend quite a bit of time doing this in my practice, helping patients to understand the stresses they are going through and how they are affecting their lives, and based on the results of the cost-benefit analysis, helping the person to decide whether or not the stress is one that should be held onto, sometimes even fostered, or, to the contrary, minimized as much as possible.

So, let’s say you’re feeling stressed. Is it good stress? Can you use it to do something that will accomplish something good in any way? Or is it bad stress, that will accomplish nothing, other than leaving you in worse health?

Think about it. Sometimes the answer is obvious, and sometimes it’s not. If the answer is obvious, then do what you know you need to do. If it’s not obvious, or even if it is obvious but you are having trouble letting go of a particular stressful thought even though you know you should, well that’s what I’m here to help with.

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