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Bad vs. Good Stress — How to Reframe the Bad To Grow the Good

Harness bad stress and face your challenges, head on.

Sunlight streams through your windows on a warm Spring morning. You should be basking in the beauty of nature, but instead you’re dreading your to-do list. Uggh… Why does living require so much doing? It’s all of that doing that causes stress, the well-known downsides of which include self-doubt, resignation, and a reduced ability to problem-solve.

But did you know that there’s also an upside to stress? It’s called eustress (“good” stress), and it’s proven to boost joy, foster self confidence, and spur us to succeed.

“Research shows anxiety or stress can increase our energy levels and motivate us,” confirms psychologist Alicia H. Clark, Psy.D., author of Hack Your Anxiety. “The original definition of stress is ‘a demand for an organism to change,’ and eustress is a demand for positive change. Just knowing this helps take the pressure off our shoulders and gives us more control over our stress.” She adds that simply using more empowering language to describe stress — such as “exciting” instead of “scary,” or “challenge” rather than “obstacle” — changes our brain’s neural pathways, helping us feel more energized and confident.

Long story short: Although we tend to demonize stress, if harnessed correctly, it can inspire us to achieve more than we ever dreamed possible. Read on for simple, proven ways to transform common stressors into empowering opportunities for personal growth, greater happiness, and far-reaching hope for the future.

Overwhelmed? Reframe your to-dos as a list of your talents.

Your email inbox reads like a laundry list of tasks, and your energy ebbs with every new demand on your time. “When too much comes at us all at once, we feel helpless, and we often mistake fatigue for a lack of ability to handle it,” says Clark. “That absence of self-belief adds to our overwhelm.”

The Solve: When facing a deluge of tasks, ask yourself why so much is being asked of you. “Reframe this anxiety as a positive sign that you’re engaged in your life in so many ways,” urges Clark. In other words, demands on your time pile up precisely because of your varied talents. “Once you remind yourself of this, your nervous system will calm down and your brain will be able to prioritize your top three or so tasks,” she says, adding that allowing yourself breaks is key to tapping “good stress” and keeping energy high. In fact, one study conducted by Desk Time found focusing in 52-minute blocks, then taking 17-minute breaks, reduced tension and boosted productivity. “This ‘push, then relax’ strategy creates balance, turning stress into momentum.”

Lonely? Think through your emotions so you can make the right changes.

When your daughter moves across the country for a new job, you feel lonely and even a bit abandoned. “Loneliness often stirs feelings of rejection,” says Clark. “But that’s an often untrue mental leap that can make us withdraw further,” and thus intensify our feelings of loneliness.

The Solve: Because loneliness feels big and daunting, it helps to clarify exactly what we’re feeling. Clark explains that getting specific turns on a part of our brain that helps us solve problems by igniting the motivational spark of good stress. “For example, rather than saying to yourself, ‘I’m missing connections,’ get curious and delve deeper. Maybe you’re missing a certain time in your life. What was special about it? Were you engaged in hobbies that helped you socialize?” Harnessing the proactive form of stress by investigating our feelings allows us to look at them more analytically and come up with surprising solutions.

Fearful? Use your worries to fuel problem-solving.

While planning your monthly budget, your stress level rises along with your monthly grocery bill. What if I won’t be able to afford food? Why can’t I handle this? You admonish yourself. Clark explains, “On top of our initial stress, we often have a secondary anxiety response, where we add self-judgment by telling ourselves that we’re not capable.”

The Solve: Rather than see your worry as a weakness, look at it as fuel for problem-solving. “Anxiety delivers us the drive and energy to overcome challenges,” says Clark. A proven way to harness your strengths is by visualizing future success, adds Lisa Smith, Psy.D., a psychologist and lecturer at Sacred Heart University. “Shift from fear-based thinking into rational problem-solving by picturing yourself reaching your goals, be it cutting coupons and saving money or cashing a check if you have a specific financial objective,” she says. “Mentally ‘practicing’ feeling confident tells your brain that you can do this, spurring you to take the steps you need.”

Reeling From a Setback? Refocus on Your Values.

After being laid off from a position you’ve held for years, you find yourself wrestling with an array of emotions from anger to grief. And through it all, the one constant you feel is stress. Says Clark, “Anxiety is like an accelerant that intensifies every emotion, including sadness.”

The Solve: When grappling with a setback, look to stress as a reminder of what’s most important to you. The anxiety of dealing with change or disappointment is a catalyst to become more mindful of your values, observes Clark. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I living my best life? What’s in my way?’ When you’re stuck, these questions help you use anxiety to steer yourself forward.”

Instead of forcing them down, wait for hurt feelings to dissipate, then look for the opportunity in the situation, adds Smith. “If you lose your job, for example, this may be your chance to strengthen a skill you haven’t had the time to focus on. Rather than telling yourself this is the end of something, remind yourself this is a new beginning.” Like so much in life, stress has two sides to it. Tapping into the motivating part of anxiety will help you overcome challenges, increase faith in yourself, and boost your long-term bliss.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First for Women.

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