Always look on the bright side of stress

Story highlights

  • Stressful situations can make us feel either distress or eustress (also known as "good stress") depending on how we view them
  • Understanding the benefits of our body's stress response can help us perform under pressure
  • Being stressed can pay off in terms of improving memory, creativity and relationships

(CNN)Don't stress out! Or do. Despite the bad reputation that stress has long held, there is a growing appreciation that pressure has its perks.

"You think that stress is bad, but research shows that in moderation and with the proper resources, not all stress is bad," said Elisabeth Conradt, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah.
The difference between bad and good stress, some experts argue, is all in how we view the situation. It is the difference between feeling distress, the ugly side of stress we all know too well, versus its feel-good cousin called eustress.
    At least that is the premise in the book "The Upside Of Stress: Why stress is good for you and how to get good at it," which came out this month. It was written by Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist at Stanford University, and there is research to back up her argument. A 2013 study, for example, suggested that people who saw stress as a natural response were better able to fend off panic and perform well in a public speaking task.
    The benefits of surviving stressful situations, and coping with them effectively, could add up. "The thought is that this can set you up to be more resilient to facing stressors later on," Conradt said.
    The ability to withstand stress may also help you harness the benefits that come with being in a bind. One small study found that young men had boosts in their short-term memory after they were put in a socially stressful situation. Other reports suggest that pressure can make you more creative and responsible.

    The good, the bad and the toxic

    Although events or life changes, such as buying a house or getting married, seem joyous, they are stressors nonetheless. "Nothing is objectively positive, it's all in how you perceive it," said Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology at George Mason University. "People stress about these things and our thoughts about these situations matter immensely," he said.
    Likewise, most situations are also not objectively negative, although some do qualify, Kashdan said. Assault, natural disaster and losing a job are a few. Still, these stresses are manageable, especially with support from family and friends.
    Yet there are cases where stress can be dangerous. Toxic stress, which can be borne out of high-level or frequent adversity, occurs when our body's stress response that normally helps us cope with a difficult situation -- including increased heartbeat and stress hormone levels -- goes into overdrive. It can have lasting damage, particularly in children, who may suffer developmental delays and face higher risk of chronic diseases.

    The more you know

    The 2013 study that asked people to engage in public speaking gave about half the participants a lesson about stress before they went into the uncomfortable situation. The lesson covered how the body's stress response is important for survival and studies on the psychological benefits of stress. Not only did the educated half have a more mild physical response to public speaking, such as maintaining a lower heart rate, they also performed better according to a panel of judges.
    "Public speaking can be a stressful thing for a lot of people," said Conradt, who was not involved in the study. "In this research it's all about how you appraise the situation and how you think about what it means to be stressed."

    Put a label on it

    According to Kashdan, there are strategies to turn a situation such as public speaking, which he says is the greatest fear in the United States, from a terrifying threat into a motivating challenge. Part of it comes down to giving your emotions a name.
    Kashdan and his colleagues recently reviewed studies that found people who explain their emotions in specific terms are probably at lower risk of being overwhelmed in stressful situations. "If I say, 'I am sad' or 'I am angry,' instead of something crude like, 'I am stressed out,' I can solicit help or figure out what to do," said Kashdan, who is the author of, "The Upside of your Dark Side," which explores how personality traits that are generally viewed as undesirable, such as being submissive or selfish, can be advantageous.

    Perks of stress

    Stress is more than just a nuisance we have to deal with. It is a reminder that we are doing something we are passionate about. As McGonigal wrote in her book, "You don't stress out about things you don't care about, and you can't create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress."
    Kashdan agrees. Without stress, he said, "we would not have long-term relationships and friendships, parenting would be impossible, you could not become wise or strong." He added that, "Anytime there's an opportunity to showcase your strength or potential and there's a challenge, there is an opportunity for 'good stress'."