How to tell the difference between good and bad stress

Have you ever wondered…is stress good or bad? You might be surprised to find out that it can actually be both. Many people are quick to assume that all stress is bad for you. However, this isn’t always the case. In fact, some types of short-term stress can even motivate you and enhance your performance. That said, like most things in life, too much stress can cause adverse physical and, more importantly, mental health effects.

It’s essential to understand how to identify the different types of good and bad stress, so you can better manage your levels and ensure that the pressure isn’t getting the best of you. 

Let’s review the differences between good and bad stress, look at some examples of each type, and learn about self-care tactics that can help you relax and enjoy your life more, stress-free and happy.

Good Stress vs. Bad Stress

Both good and bad stress can cause your body to secrete certain hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can cause a racing heart, rapid breathing, sweaty hands, and butterflies in your stomach, among other things.

Known by mental health professionals as eustress and distress, the two types of stress can have different effects on you. 

Eustress, or good stress, typically has a positive effect and gives you an upbeat outlook. This type of stress might even encourage you to feel motivated and enthusiastic about making a change in your life. Good stress can often leave you feeling energized and able to overcome adversity, illness, or anything challenging that comes your way.  

Distress, on the other hand, is what most of us think about when we talk about stress. It’s that overwhelming, anxiety-inducing, nerve-wracking form of stress that can leave you feeling debilitated and unable to focus, complete tasks, or face challenges. 

“The common misconception is that all stress is bad stress. This isn’t always the case, and it’s important to recognize that stress can mean different things in certain situations. Understanding the differences between good (eustress) and bad (distress) will help in managing these stressors in different ways.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

What is good stress?

Good stress typically doesn’t last long. It’s a short-term, fight-or-flight phenomenon that drives you to accomplish greater goals. During times when you’re under good stress, you’ll feel as if you have a lot of control over the outcome of tasks you take on. Good stress can help you perform better.

Eustress occurs when you feel excited, like when you’re watching a thriller or on a fast roller coaster. It causes feelings of invigoration and excitement. A first date is an excellent example of eustress. 

When you’re in a period of eustress, your heart rate quickens, your breathing thins out, and your hormones kick into high gear, even though there’s no real, dangerous threat present. Good stress helps you focus your energy and achieve more success and happiness in your life.

Good stress examples include:

  • Going on a first date
  • Approaching a deadline
  • Starting a new job
  • Anticipating an upcoming test or exam
  • Marriage 
  • Preparing for an important speech
  • The birth of a child
  • Buying a new house

These and other types of good stress offer short bouts of motivation to help you achieve your goals and overcome the obstacles in your way. Even though stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline still flood into the body, the effects aren’t long-lasting enough to cause any actual harm.

What is bad stress?

Bad stress is generally not short term. More often than not, it’s chronic and draining. It can slow you down and significantly detract from your quality of life. Distress can stop you from being able to accomplish your goals. Ultimately, it’s very damaging because it never gives you a chance to recuperate from the fight-or-flight effects your body’s undergoing. You live in a constant state of threat.

Unaddressed, distress can cause your body and brain to suffer. That fight-or-flight response that may initially give you a beneficial edge will become detrimental.

For example, while focusing on a deadline can cause good stress that enhances performance, constantly feeling under stress about never-ending deadlines can lead to decreased performance.

Good stress allows for time in between bouts of stress to recuperate and recover. Bad stress doesn’t, and it can leave you feeling exhausted to the point where you feel like giving up.

Some examples of bad stress include:

  • Experiencing relationship strain 
  • Ending a relationship (either platonic or romantic)
  • Death of a friend, loved one, or spouse
  • Abuse or neglect
  • Working a high-pressure job with never-ending demand
  • Unaddressed mental or physical health conditions
  • Divorce
  • Financial difficulty 
  • Illness or hospitalization
  • An unhealthy pursuit of money

When you’re stuck in a state of bad stress, your endocrine, digestive, excretory, immune, circulatory, and reproductive systems cannot perform their normal activities. The chronic stress you undergo changes your entire way of physical, psychological, and physiological functioning.

Without resolving bad stress, you may in time develop several negative health issues, including:

  • Memory loss
  • Weight gain
  • Persistent irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Heart disease
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure 

That’s why it’s so important to learn how to anticipate, recognize, and cope with bad stress in your life. 

How to Regulate Good Stress Before it Becomes Bad Stress

Now let’s review some healthy lifestyle choices that you can begin practicing immediately to lessen the effects of bad stress in your life. Knowing and taking care of yourself is the number 1 way you can regulate your stress level and ensure that you’re healthy and keeping your life balanced. 

“Too much of anything is a bad thing most of the time. This is true with stress. Too much good stress can lead to it tipping over and becoming bad. Understanding limits and working on moderation when it comes to managing eustress will help keep that balance of just enough.”

Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung, MS, LMHC

Tips for Reducing Bad Stress

Chronic bad stress can cause serious problems in your life. Effective stress management involves identifying negative stressors and learning positive, healthy ways to cope with them, especially during a stressful situation. There’s no instant, magical cure for negative stress. However, there are various self-care techniques that will help you navigate the effects of stress better.

Watch what you eat

Certain food sources, including fatty fish, fermented foods like sauerkraut, green leafy vegetables, lean cuts of meat, and spices like ginger and turmeric curcumin, are known for the benefits they offer in combating the effects of stress and anxiety. Consider adding more of these foods to your daily diet.

Watch what you think

If you’re experiencing bad stress, practicing mindfulness meditation can be helpful. This ancient practice is based on techniques that teach you how to stay present and observe your breathing and thoughts as they occur. Meditation can help you stay centered in the present moment and reduce feelings of fear and anxiety about nonspecific future events that commonly cause distress.

Watch what you allow

Understand that it’s OK to say no. Setting boundaries about what and who you allow in your life is healthy. Sticking to those boundaries can be difficult but rewarding. Prioritize managing your time more effectively and staying centered on your goals. Like mindfulness meditation, boundaries can help you decrease bad stress levels naturally.

Watch how you breathe

Breath is our primary connection to life. When you’re calm, you breathe deeply and slowly. When you’re stressed, you tend to breathe fast and shallow. Intentional control of your breath can decrease stress by: 

  • Slowing down your heart rate
  • Centering your thoughts
  • Encouraging healthy emotional responses 

When you’re feeling stressed out, try taking ten deep breaths and feel the difference.

Watch how you move

It’s no secret that regular physical exercise is important for all aspects of your health. Taking just 15 minutes each day to get moving to the point that you’re gently perspiring has a myriad of health benefits. Don’t neglect this important stress-busting life activity.

Watch who’s around you

Having support is essential all the time, but it becomes even more critical when you’re dealing with stress. It’s important to confide in family and friends about the things that are really stressing you out. We all need someone to talk to at one time or another in life. 

If you find it hard to open up to the people in your life about your bad stress, it might be more beneficial to seek the help of a professional mental health counselor. You’ll be able to freely express your feelings in an unbiased, safe environment without fear of judgment. This alone can be extremely valuable in decreasing your levels of bad stress. Turn to Talkspace’s online therapy as a convenient option in accessing treatment.