Technology, Culture, & Emotional Intelligence

Good Stress and Bad Stress

The next time you feel you might be experiencing stress, halt what you are doing and ask these four questions.

Cause they’ve been swimming in the wrong waters. Now they’re pulling me down.
Photo by nikko macaspac / Unsplash

Years ago, I woke up early on a summer Sunday morning and something was wrong. My heart was palpitating. My mind was racing. My breathing was heavy. After about 30 minutes of deep breathing, I was able to calm down and went back to sleep. The next morning I felt fine, but just a few hours later the feeling was back. At the hospital, I was told that I had just had my first introduction to a panic attack.

Since that day, almost every adult I’ve spoken to about my own struggles with stress shares with me their own “when it all just became too much” story. We all know what stress feels like, and as time goes on, we also start to clue into what types of situations are prone to stress us out… even before they happen. That summer, I had just started a new job, I had taken on a load of new responsibilities, and I had no clarity about my role; what was I responsible for, and what could wait. The concern that I might let everyone down, or reveal to my boss that they had made a mistake in giving me this opportunity caused me to try and do it all myself. Unsurprisingly, that did not work well.

In his book, “The EQ Intervention,” Dr. Adam Saenz reveals the emotional center of our stress mechanism: “Stress is basically fear,” Dr. Saenz says, “and fear ignites our fight or flight mechanism.” In other words, at the core of stress — the kind of stress that ruins sleep and causes health problems — is fear. Years ago, I heard author and businessman Donald Miller declare that at our core, we all have the same chief fear. We are all asking, “Do I have what it takes?” Do I have what it takes to be good at my job? Do I have what it takes to be a good spouse, parent, or friend? When this fear mounts, and when the answer to this core question is beyond our control to answer, it causes something called “bad stress.”

Of course, in using this term, I am also implying that something called “good stress” also exists. Whether your stress is good or bad stress is often up to you.

What is Stress?

What we feel and call “stress” is ultimately biological. Again, according to Dr. Saenz, it’s a spike of energy our brain is giving us to combat a given challenge in front of us.

“This energy—the neurochemical cocktail our bodies create—is intended to serve as fuel that will power us to either fight or run from what is scaring us. Stress energy can be good, as it is often key ingredient in peak performance. However, if we are too stressed for too long, the chronic presence of these chemicals can have devastating effects on our emotions, our immune system, the clarity of our cognitive processes, and our digestive system.”

Another way to say this is: the stress we feel when facing a challenging task is a good thing, and the bad stress we feel when we are overwhelmed with a challenge is too much of a good thing.

The classic example of this is athletics. To grow muscle we lift weights. That weight puts stress on our muscles which causes them to react. Blood rushes to the muscle. We breathe heavily. We sweat. That’s all stress. In this case, the stress causes you to build muscle, release endorphins, and ultimately get stronger. After you face a few rounds of lifting weights, you have to increase the weight to get the same effect. You can handle more once you’ve proven yourself with less.

If, however, someone was brand new to the weight room and went right to the heaviest weight, that stress would be too much and injury would ensue. When we try to do too much, lift too much, or take responsibility for too much, it can all come crashing down. Here’s how I like to sum this all up:

Good Stress = Tension Leading to Growth

Bad Stress = Juggling Leading to Crash

"Hendrie Weisinger, Ph.D., a world-renowned psychologist and senior author of 'Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most,' explains these two ideas with the terms 'stress' and 'pressure.'” My colleague Tim Elmore has written on the difference between stress and pressure as well. Here is how Dr. Weisinger explains it:

Pressure is a situation in which you perceive that something at stake is dependent on the outcome of your performance.
Stress refers to the situation of too many demands and not enough resources – time, money, energy – to meet them.”

Utilizing these terms, you can see that the stress mechanism in your body is an amazing feature with an amazing function: to give you the energy and stamina you need to perform when you are under pressure. But, when you find yourself in a situation where the pressure doesn’t let up, where the outcome of your concern is beyond your control, or where you don’t have the resources to succeed, that stress becomes chronic and unhealthy. Cue all the bad things.

Luckily for us, there is a method that can start to put some of our stress management back into our control.

An Answer to Bad Stress: The H.A.L.T Method

“As you might imagine, then, effectively managing stress is essential to our sustainability, and effective stress management begins with identifying how vulnerable we are to experiencing stress."
― Adam Saenz, The EQ Intervention

One of the greatest barriers to stopping stress before it becomes chronic is that it’s hard to recognize when we are stressed. I suggest you try a method that my father shared with me years ago. It’s called the “H.A.L.T. method.” It’s easy to understand. You are most likely to experience chronic stress when you are:

  • Hungry
  • Angry
  • Lonely
  • Tired

I try to HALT making pressurized decisions when I’m hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Think about the last time you were really stressed; my guess is that one of these factors was to blame. Maybe you hadn’t eaten in a while. Maybe you were angry, frustrated, or hurt by someone. Maybe you were alone — physically or emotionally. Perhaps it was as simple as not having enough sleep the night before. While these are not the only four accelerators of stress, they are some of the most common ones. The next time you feel you might be stressed, halt what you are doing and ask these four questions:

  • Ask Yourself: When was the last time that I ate something?
  • Ask Yourself: Am I frustrated or angry with a person or situation?
  • Ask Yourself: Am I currently alone, or do I feel lonely?
  • Ask Yourself: How much sleep have I had recently?

While these methods may seem simple or even silly, intentionally stopping and considering our situation can settle us and set us up to make good decisions in the near future. The process I follow is to take a break, meet the immediate need in front of me, then come back to the next decision or task once my brain is ready. I wish someone could have given me this advice years ago.

Today, I operate with boundaries that keep me from drifting into the zone of bad stress. These boundaries have now saved me several times from ending up in a place like I was back in 2017.

So, can you do me a favor? Let’s all agree to be more aware of our situations and our bodies. The next time you are facing something tough, it could make all the difference.


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Jamie Larson