Types of Stress That Are Actually Good for You
Most of the time when we think of stress, our mind jumps to thoughts and phrases like “stress relief,” “how to relieve stress,” “how to prevent stress,” and “how to lower my stress levels.” And while yes, chronic high levels of stress can be extremely harmful, one of the best lessons you can learn as a health-conscious person is that not all stress is bad stress. In fact, there are certain types of stress that are considered “good stress” and activities that cause us stress in a way that helps our bodies thrive.
This might be the first time you’re hearing about stress in a positive light and I know this may seem contradictory to what you’ve been told in the past, but don’t worry, I’m here to walk you through it!
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What’s the difference between positive and negative stress?
To understand the difference between good and bad stress, we must first understand the fundamental definition of stress. The National Institute of Health defines stress as, “a physical and emotional reaction that people experience as they encounter changes in life.” In other words, stress itself simply represents a reaction—we determine whether it’s good or bad based on the effect it has on our body.
Negative stress 101
To put it simply, negative stress causes negative side effects in our body, both psychologically and physiologically. Negative stressors are events or predicaments that make you feel “stressed out” or otherwize emotionally taxed. These stressors can stem from any area in your life—your relationships, job, personal struggles, etc. Sometimes they’re in your control, and sometimes they’re not. Maybe you had a fight with a loved one or you have an impending deadline that’s stressing you out. Maybe you are stressed about missing your flight or doing well in a job interview. Negative stress is more or less anything that puts you in a state of distress. Negative stress causes a full-blown stress response—your body goes into fight or flight, you may experience anxiety, and more. And when that stress becomes chronic, that’s when it can become an issue for your health. Long-term negative stress is a risk factor for heart disease, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, gastrointestinal issues, and asthma, among other life-threatening diseases.
Positive stress 101
If negative stress is “distress,” then we can think of positive stress as “eustress.” Eustress is defined as a moderate or normal psychological stress that’s interpreted as beneficial for the experiencer. So, a positive stressor is anything that causes eustress. Examples could be an upcoming vacation, the holiday season, a surprise party, a pregnancy, anything that you’re excited about. Positive stressors can cause excitement, anticipation, and anxiety that isn’t coming from a place of panic or distress. I tend to describe it as that “edge of your seat excited” feeling.
Also, certain health modalities and lifestyle habits can cause our body “stress,” but in a way that benefits us! For example, anyone who knows me knows I’m a proponent of intermittent fasting. Well, when we fast, we’re basically forcing our body to detox itself by stimulating biological processes like autophagy—the cleaning out of damaged cells and regeneration of newer, healthier ones. So does fasting cause our body stress? Technically, yes. Our cortisol levels (the stress hormone) do increase when we fast, which is a tell-tale sign of stress. The difference here is that fasting triggers a cellular stress response that in turn improves our ability to cope with stress and fight disease. (1) The outcome of the stress that fasting causes is positive—the effect it has on our bodies is positive, making it a positive type of stress.
Hormesis + Other Types of Positive Stress
Something we talk about often in the holistic health world is hormesis. Hormesis was a major topic in my new book Intuitive Fasting and is defined as “a dose-response phenomenon characterized by low-dose stimulation and high-dose inhibition.” (2) Put another way, hormesis refers to the beneficial effects of a treatment that at a higher intensity is harmful. (3) Essentially, it’s controlled exposure to stressors that induces a response that results in stress resistance. Hormesis is being used more and more in age-related research, especially with regards to Alzheimer’s and dementia prevention. (4)
Another prime example of positive stressors is exercise. We tend to think of exercise as a stress-reliever—which it is—but it can also cause stress in the body. It all has to do with cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol plays an important role in the body—it gives us energy, helps us fight infection, and can even ease our pain. Too much cortisol, though, can have negative side effects (remember those diseases I mentioned?). To break it down a bit, our body sees exercise as a stressor—we’re making demands of our body, and pushing it to perform, which triggers the release of cortisol. The positive part of this is that exercise makes the body adapt to the stress, which makes it better able to handle that physical stress in the future. (This, paired with muscle growth, is how we get stronger.) The higher intensity the workout is—like HIIT or weight training—the more stress you’re putting on your body.
So, how should you exercise in order to benefit from this stress? Take rest breaks during your workout, fuel yourself properly before the workout, and alternate high intensity workout days with lower intensity and recovery days. Bottom line: Exercise causes you stress, but that stress can make you stronger, fitter, and happier in the long-term.
At the end of the day, the take-home message is that not all stress is bad stress. Stress can benefit our body in a number of ways, so long as it isn’t chronic negative stress. If you yourself are dealing with chronic negative stress, I recommend first taking a look at your lifestyle. Do you have a consistent exercise routine? Are you eating an anti-inflammatory diet and getting enough sleep? If not, it’s worth making those changes and seeing how you feel. I also love meditation and yoga, but the list of stress relievers is endless! As always, you have to do what works best for you.
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- Longo VD, Mattson MP. Fasting: molecular mechanisms and clinical applications. Cell Metab. 2014;19(2):181-192. doi:10.1016/j.cmet.2013.12.008
- Kouda K, Iki M. Beneficial effects of mild stress (hormetic effects): dietary restriction and health. J Physiol Anthropol. 2010;29(4):127-32. doi: 10.2114/jpa2.29.127. PMID: 20686325.
- Gems D, Partridge L. Stress-response hormesis and aging: "that which does not kill us makes us stronger". Cell Metab. 2008 Mar;7(3):200-3. doi: 10.1016/j.cmet.2008.01.001. PMID: 18316025.
- Mao L, Franke J. Hormesis in aging and neurodegeneration-a prodigy awaiting dissection. Int J Mol Sci. 2013;14(7):13109-13128. Published 2013 Jun 25. doi:10.3390/ijms140713109
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.