I walk around the park before work almost every morning. With my heart racing, I walk quickly as the weather awakens me and the pavement instills order in my head for the day.
When I finally feel awake enough to talk, I always call a friend and we start by asking each other “How are you?” To which they always reply, “So stressed because.” The because doesn’t matter; so many reasons for stress have been given that it wouldn’t be worth even beginning to list them. It comes from everywhere. Stressed because of our jobs. Stressed because of our partners, or lack thereof. Stressed because of the government, because of the horror on the news, because everything is so damn expensive.
The next step after stressing about something is stressing about stress itself, which is a much more poisoned line of thought. My friends and I have pursued that avenue countless times, wondering if the stress itself would cause Bad Things like panic episodes sleepless nights, or even… cancer. I mean, that is perhaps going a bit far, but truly, we have considered it.
To be the voice of reason during these chats, and to mollify myself, I decided to ask some experts about whether stress is as pernicious as we’ve come to believe — and, if so, what the knock-on effects can be.
I started with Chris Mosunic, clinical psychologist and Calm’s chief clinical officer, who began by providing the voice of doom I was hoping not to encounter. “Stress can lead to heightened feelings of anxiety, and depression, and make someone have difficulty concentrating. It isn’t just a mental or emotional experience as it can manifest physically through symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, stomach aches, fatigue, and difficulty sleeping,” adding, damningly, “it can also worsen existing health conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.”
Desperate for a glimmer of hope, I ask if stress is universally a blanket baddie and am delighted that the response is a resounding no. Stress, it seems, is a bit of a chameleon. It was, after all, designed to keep us out of danger, to give us a burst of extra oomph when the going got tough, to help us run away from that lion, etc. We are, Mosumic tells me, designed to deal with stress, and it has been necessary for survival and performance.
Cheered, I ask him how this translates now that we no longer live in the wild and instead find ourselves stressed for more modern, rather less life and death reasons. “It’s your body’s way of protecting you when it senses danger, whether real or imagined, but stress can also be seen as a motivator, even exciting; this type of stress is known as eustress, and rather than exhaust your energy, eustress energizes you and provides a sense of purpose.”
It’s a good point; there are plenty of things I wouldn’t be able to do were I not a little stressed. Every single dinner or drinks gathering I’ve ever held has been a triumph of last-minute stress. There is zero chance I’d have ever written a dissertation without it. Come to think of it, I might not be writing this without a little stress propelling me along by my demanding editor.
Charlotte Fox Weber, psychotherapist and author of What We Want, shares his view: “Anything momentous requires a little stress — big occasions, projects, major decisions. Stress can help motivate and energize, and there can be a certain alertness that kicks in.”
This all sounds delightful, doesn’t it? Stress equals a big push. Great. I’m on board with that, in theory. But how does one put it into practice and harness the positive elements of stress? According to Jodie Cariss, founder and CEO of Self Space, you need to start by understanding the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stress. Her tip on making the distinction? “If it’s beneficial and motivating, that’s good stress, while bad stress leads to burnout and overwhelm.”
Here are some tips from the pros to encourage the switch from ‘bad’ to ‘good’ stress:
Adjust your mindset
Psychotherapists are increasingly hammering home the importance of choosing how to frame thoughts and emotions, and stress is no different. Mosunic suggests “Instead of seeing stress as a negative thing, think of it as a challenge that can help you grow and learn.” Weber adds that it’s worth “reminding yourself of the opportunities a stressful situation might offer — stress that’s chronic can feel irritating when there’s a sense of aimlessness, so disrupt the chatter in your mind and clarify why you’re doing this.”
A resounding bit of advice that may seem obvious but needs to be put into practice: don’t take on too much. “Start by defining what is most important to you, look at the bigger picture, and start saying no. That’ll better equip you to use stress as a motivator,” says Carissa. Weber endorses this, telling me that she encourages clients to “scrap one thing — it might be a plan or a task or even a conversation. Clear something, however small; it can give you air and clarity to unburden yourself.”
With that lovely pocket freed up, Weber suggests that you try to add something “different to the rest of your routine”. She says it works whatever you choose to do — the point is to remind yourself of all the possibilities in life, that it’s not just drudgery, that stress can accompany something positive and stimulating.
Remember to do the obvious things
You know what I mean by this. Move (Chris says getting up every 20-30 minutes when at a desk is a good idea), eat well, stay hydrated, take a few deep breaths, and prioritize getting enough sleep. Everyone in the know suggests this list of things, and I’m sure you have heard them all already, but how often do you do them?