There’s a secret weapon for dealing with something unexpected. And you might be used to thinking of it as something that would undermine you, not help you shine.
Just ask Wendy Berry Mendes, PhD. She’s the Sarlo/Ekman Professor of Emotion at the University of California, San Francisco. But earlier in her life, she was a ballerina who loved performing. While she was on stage, her body sent an extra boost to her muscles and brain, helping her dance better.
What’s the scientific name for this incredibly useful reaction? Stress.
“Not all stress is necessarily bad for you,” Mendes says. She studies how people can take advantage of its benefits — sometimes called “eustress” to differentiate it from debilitating “distress.”
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
Although you’ve almost certainly heard about how stress can lead to heart disease, muscle pain, and assorted other ailments, there’s more to it than that.
At its simplest level, stress is a very basic process that occurs whenever you sense a change in demand, says Jeremy P. Jamieson, PhD, principal investigator at the University of Rochester Social Stress Lab.
“No one says they’re stressed when they’re excited,” Jamieson says, even though that rush is a form of stress, too.
All of those hormones that your body releases are meant to give you a burst of energy and make you more alert.
“If athletes were taking them, they’d be banned for a long time,” Jamieson says. “These responses evolved to help us survive. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have them.” As Mendes notes, cortisol has been demonized as “the stress hormone,” even though not having enough of it when you need it will make you sick.
Problems generally only occur when a stress reaction happens for no reason, starts too early, lingers longer than it’s supposed to, or never lets up at all. In these cases, stress can disrupt your sleep, digestion, and other bodily functions, and instead of expanding your blood vessels, it tightens them, Mendes says. Over time, that can lead to all kinds of health problems.
Of course, some things are beyond our control and can cause chronic distress. But with many other sources of stress, our reaction can make a difference. And that depends on our mindset and approach to a situation.
Putting Stress to the Test
Take, for example, an upcoming exam. It’s natural to feel your body prepare for this event with an elevated heart rate and sweaty palms, Mendes says. For a lot of people, those signs of stress kicking in trigger unnecessary distress. And that can make it harder to focus and answer questions.
But if you explain to test takers ahead of time that these are just physiological signs that they’re getting a performance boost, they’ll earn higher scores.
“Don’t deny the changes in your body. They help you,” Jamieson says. He’s done repeated studies showing the same result. His takeaway: “Don’t be afraid to lean into stress.”
Fear of stress can make people put off critical conversations, potentially rewarding experiences, and dreams they’d like to pursue. “To achieve and grow as a person, we need to do hard things,” Jamieson says. “New challenges and new opportunities, that’s stress.”
That’s the lesson that Michael Gray, 60, has been working on teaching himself and his students at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, just south of Los Angeles. About 8 years ago, the educator and counselor’s blood pressure spiked high enough that his doctor suggested medication.
“I was not dealing with life in a productive way,” says Gray, who dove into alternative options and discovered research on rethinking stress.
Soon, Gray got married, and took a year off of work to raise his new baby while his wife started her own business. “Who does that unless they’re willing to run toward a stressful situation? We looked at it like we were on an adventure,” Gray says. “It has freed me up exponentially.”
Reaping the Benefits of Good Stress
Practicing this approach to stress alongside academic skills is invaluable for young people, says Gray, who sees how much teens struggle with interactions with friends and family. Plus, it helps set them up for career and other successes. “You’ve got to meet deadlines and try things you’re not good at, like a foreign language,” he says.
For people accustomed to avoiding stress as much as possible, embracing its benefits can take time and effort. “I’m just barely getting better at it,” Gray admits. He gets daily practice while driving on the freeway in Southern California.
It’s an area worth continuing to focus on, especially as you get older, Mendes says. Although there hasn’t been much research done on the long-term impact of positive stress, what we know is encouraging.
“There is evidence that good stress is related to less accelerated brain aging,” Mendes says. So she recommends that after retirement, keep seeking out positive forms of stress by staying mentally, socially, and physically engaged.
Most important, Jamieson says, is to stop viewing all stress as distress. “People get nervous about experiencing stress and they try to avoid it. It doesn’t work out that way,” he says. “When you need to marshal these resources, it’s OK.” And it can even be great.