Good Stress, Bad Stress: Is There A Difference?

Good stress. Bad stress. The two are viewed as the Superman and Lex Luger – archnemeses. Yet, is good stress different from bad stress, and does each produce a different response in the human body? Even doctors and psychologists take opposing views on the concept of good versus bad stress. It is akin to the 1980s debate about good egg/bad egg as it pertained to cholesterol. That debate still exists, as does the debate over how much stress, and what “kind” of stress is good or bad for us.

One of the authoritative papers on stress, “Physiology and Neurobiology of Stress and Adaptation: Central Role of The Brain” by Bruce S. McEwen, examines that question closely, and says that there the two terms refer to the same physiological response, but that there are marked differences. In other words, there is only stress, but short-term responses can be adaptive, while prolonged exposure or reaction to stress can be maladaptive and harmful.

He says that stress is a word used to describe challenges that are emotionally or physiologically challenging. He differentiates the popular jargon of “good” or “bad” stress this way: good stress refers to experiences that are shorter term, that a person can master and overcome, and provide a positive, exhilarating response; bad stress refers to experiences that are protracted or recurrent and over which the person has little or no control. In short, good stress is self-induced or regulated, such as the stress of healthy sport competition. Bad stress is beyond our control, such as a compilation of crises in our lives, or job-related deadlines and workload that are initiated and controlled by others.

Understanding the difference between the two, while also knowing that the two produce the same hormonal reaction and responses, but of differing intensity and/or duration is critical to understanding how some stress can be enjoyable and other stress can be dilatory. It is critical, as well, to how we embrace and enjoy life experiences, and, ultimately, to how we define our sense of happiness and well-being.

A few of us are conditioned to avoid stressful situations, at all costs. But this response to the external world simply helps to create anxiety and greater stress. To be afraid of life and situations in life – even those beyond our control – contributes to what McEwen describes as “allostatic load,” where the person, in attempting to maintain a balance by active means, actually begins to experience wear and tear on the body because of prolonged or acute effort to maintain that stability. Allostatic overload, he continues, contributes to the aging process.

We do have choices, in many circumstances, but we often fail to recognize that there are options to respond to the stressful situation, to alter it, or to deviate from it without being chronically fearful of stress and confronting or conflicting situations.

I have been through more than my share of marriages and relationships in my younger life. As they deteriorated, I experienced stress. Like most others in such situations, one of the stressors was the division of marital property. Divorce courts are crammed with couples battling to maintain what they see as their share of assets, and attempting to garner everything that is important to them. But few seem to really know what is important.

I have been able to act as a formal mediator, and also handled the legal wranglings for eight other friends going through divorces, all with perfect results. The hardest part is to determine what those perfect results may be. And there is a tendency for people, once they gain the upper hand in negotiations, to go for the jugular. That, to me, is not acceptable. One friend had, as his objective, recovering his portion of his pension and a small cash reserve. He was more than entitled to it, but when we set out, we set that as his objective. But when it became clear that we could get more (because he was entitled to more, as well), the revenge factor kicked in. I gave him an option: go for more on his own or with a lawyer, or accept his original goal. He accepted the original, and has been happy.

In my own divorces, though, I had only one objective: to get out of the relationship and get on with life. In each case, I gave up the family home, gave up the cash assets, gave up the acquisitions, took on almost all debts and offered generous support where required. The result? I got to re-invent myself, over and over. I was stress-free (asset-free, too, but that was immaterial). Ironically, in every case, bitterness lingered in my ex partners. One went so far as to state that, if I was happy, she must have been cheated out of something by me. (It shouldn’t have, but that comment made me even happier. Gloating, sometimes, is irresistible).

The truth is that my ex-partners did not really know what they wanted, or what made them happy. They continued to experience stress, because they created the situation for themselves.

How does a divorce relate to a discussion of good stress or bad stress? Simple. We need to know what is important, and what is not. We need to know when to extricate ourselves from a stressful situation and when to stand up and be counted. Having my friends’ future in my hands was stressful. But because I knew, in my heart, that what I was doing was right, I was prepared to fight for them, and expose myself to conflict and stress. It was good stress. Because I knew that I really did not care about material wealth, I was willing to give up those possessions. I fought for my children, because they were important. I knew when to fight, when to retreat. And the fear of the stress was not a factor in my decision, except to the extent that I was willing to take on stress to do the right thing.

Because we associate bad stress most often with relationships and work (which also is a relationship), we respond by disliking the event, not the component causes. Is work really the problem, or is it the interaction with specific people, the work deadlines, a lack of comfort with the task itself, the remuneration, or any of a hundred other factors.

Fear of work stress or relationship stress scan become like a phobia, disabling us. It is when we are able to break down the specific components of that stress that we are able to dissolve our fears.

A friend has, over time, had extreme difficulty remaining in one job for any length of time, even though he is very talented. Rapidly, each job becomes too stressful for him. But, in talking to him, it has become clear that it is not the job, but his reaction to authority that causes his grief. He has lost out on tremendous opportunity because he fears authority and power so intensely. Hopefully, his new career will lend him some comfort.

My wife worked in a full time position, with some very decent coworkers. But she had to work, as a single parent, to support her children. She could not afford to leave the present position to seek other employment, as her wage would have decreased beyond what she could afford. A very outgoing person, she was becoming stressed, depressed and anxious.

We worked on a couple of strategies, after identifying that a majority of the problems came from expectations and reactions to specific co-workers. First, we worked on how to regain mastery over her space at work, without being obnoxious or retaliatory. This involved techniques to move the “alpha” employee from her position of dominance. It involved responding differently to two other co-workers, and understanding the contributors to their actions. This step paid almost immediate dividends, and her stress dissipated quickly.

But anxiety over income remained, which meant she was locked to her job. Through various means, we were able to allow her to become a casual employee. Although she still worked five days a week (because she was needed and valued), she did so at her choice, and, when she needed time off, she got it. Yes, she lost her benefits package, but with good health, she didn’t need it. This meant that, when she worked five days a week, she earned almost as much net income as she did while full time, but now she had choice. Suddenly, all her stress was gone. She was in control of choices. Sure, she had obligations at work, but she chose to be there.

This example clearly highlights how even bad stress may not be bad stress, if the circumstances surrounding it are altered. She enjoys the pressure to achieve, but she now does it for personal reasons and not because she is compelled to do so.

When we think of good and bad stress, we should be considering, not the designation, but the impact and the control that we can exercise over it. Our sense of fulfillment comes when we have chosen to achieve and compete, rather than when we are compelled to do so. Choose to achieve and fight for what you believe in. Do not choose to flee from challenge. That oasis of relief in life is rarely valued if you have trekked across lush, inviting fields as opposed to oppressive, raw and angry desert to reach the lush green of the watering hole.