Stress has gotten a bad reputation. In this age of self-care and burnout, many people long for less stress or to be stress-free. Yet, without some stress we would accomplish little and live boring lives.
Is there really such a thing as “good stress?” Years ago, endocrinologist Hans Selye, MD, author of The Stress of Life, coined the term “eustress” to describe beneficial stress, stress that produces excitement, stimulation, and achievement. Eustress can have a positive effect on performance and confidence level, and can facilitate growth, even improve a person’s quality of life.
One of the best examples of eustress can be found in athletic competitions, where the individual or the team uses the stress of the coming challenge to get “psyched up” or ready. Similarly, if you ask singers, dancers, speakers, and musicians about stress, you will probably hear that they use their stress level in a positive way to prepare and to enhance their performances.
Eustress can be a factor in trying new things—activities like bungee jumping, rock climbing, or zip lining—which, probably require a certain amount of stress to move you forward, and to give you needed courage. But, eustress also is beneficial in activities that do not have a physical component but require a certain level of self-confidence to meet a personal goal or challenge. Consider an interview for a position you want badly, or think about the first day on a new job, or a first date, or taking an important exam, or submitting a manuscript or proposal that you have spent months writing. Eustress plays a major (and positive) role in each. Deadlines can also exert a positive stress .
As Selye noted, “The goal is certainly not to avoid stress.” Stress is an inescapable part of life. It is important, though, to recognize, accept, and embrace stress that pushes you to do something new or something better. This can be easier said than done.
Many books have been written on controlling your stress level, and the suggestions offered often are useful and encourage you to make better choices, to say “no” more frequently, and to avoid stressful people and situations. But only you can determine how much and what kinds of stress you actually need. For example, the busy executive may love her life and find it exciting. She might hate a beach vacation doing nothing but relaxing and would prefer something much more active where she is learning new things and meeting personal challenges. On the other hand, many people turn a vacation into such a packed schedule that they come back exhausted and irritable. Still others opt for a “staycation,” where they never leave their neighborhood.
So how can you use stress to your advantage? First of all, become aware of the positive aspects of stress. Evaluate each stressful situation to determine if it is really all negative stress or is there something positive and useful in it. Next listen to the messages you are sending yourself. Self-talk can be a detriment or it can be an important asset in transforming stress from negative to positive. If you keep telling yourself that you are going to fail a test, you probably will. If you repeatedly listen to your voice of caution that worries about failure or looking foolish, you will never try anything new. Instead, the next time you are feeling stressed, ask yourself how you can take that stress and convert it to eustress, and then use it to your advantage. And while you are at it, keep reminding yourself that “you’ve got this.”