Can You Turn Stress into a Good Thing?

Search on the word "stress" on and you'll get a list of more than 31,000 book titles. Most describe the serious health risks of too much stress, or offer recommendations about how to successfully manage stress. The plethora of books, articles, and self-proclaimed experts on stress management speaks to how pervasive stress is in our society.

Stress is inevitable and, although it generally gets a bad rap, sometimes stress can actually be a good thing.

Stress is anything that threatens us physically (such as being attacked) or mentally (such as fear and anxiety). Bad stress, or distress, especially when it is prolonged, can take a serious toll on our health. It impairs performance and accelerates aging.

Good stress (eustress), on the other hand, can improve performance and enhance our memory. It is emotionally challenging and stimulating, and is something you feel you have some control over.

Stress can produce positive physical benefits. According to Firdaus Dhabhar, an associate professor and Director of Research at Stanford Center on Stress & Health (Stanford School of Medicine), short-term stress is a fundamental defense mechanism that helps us survive. The fight-or-flight response, which kicks in when we believe we're in physical danger, is an example of beneficial, short-term stress. Stress has both positive and negative effects on our immune system, depending on what's causing the stress.

Acute stress can enhance immune response. Studies have shown that although surgery induces short-term stress, it also boosts the immune system following surgery, enhancing a patient's recovery. Chronic stress, on the other hand, suppresses the immune system, leaving us vulnerable to illness. Dhabhar hopes the results of studies such as this will help us understand what biological actions produce immune-enhancing effects from stress. This knowledge, in turn, will provide direction for developing interventions to take advantage of this phenomenon.

Believe it or not, a modest amount of stress can even be beneficial to developing babies. In a study at Johns Hopkins University, researchers measured the response of 24-week-old fetuses to their mothers' state of stress or relaxation. They found that moderate stress might actually help the fetus adapt to the environment and make babies more resilient after birth.

Turning a Negative into a Positive

You can channel your own stress towards positive outcomes. Accept reasonable challenges to help you grow and develop new skills; use stress to help you focus on the task at hand-an athletic competition, job interview, or exam, for example; visualize success; and turn your fear into excitement to improve your performance.


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Dhabhar, F.S. "Enhancing versus suppressive effects of stress on immune function: implications for immunoprotection and immunopathology." Neuroimmunomodulation 16(5) (2009): 300-317. Web.

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