Is all stress bad or can it be useful?

So how do we properly manage what is an inescapable part of our lives?

Joe Myers, Writer, Formative Content

  • Stress can have short- and long-term consequences for our health.
  • In certain situations, it can be useful to improve performance – or help us deal with life-threatening situations.
  • But, to avoid it becoming chronic, and negatively impacting our health, it’s important to effectively identify and manage stress.

The past 18 months have felt particularly stressful for billions around the globe.

The impact of COVID-19 has disrupted livelihoods and millions of lives have been lost. Add to that the uncertainty the pandemic has caused and the challenges of lockdowns, home-schooling and more, and it’s not surprising surveys have reported increased stress levels.

But what impact does stress have on our health? Does it have any benefits? And what can we do to manage it?

Is stress bad for our health?

Stress have can have both short-term and long-term implications for our physical and mental health.

The US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains chronic stress can contribute to a wide range of conditions. From digestive disruption to headaches and irritability, it can affect us on a day-to-day basis. But, over the longer term, stress can contribute to more serious conditions, including heart disease and high blood pressure.

It’s also been linked to mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.

Over the long term, it can also lead to feelings of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, explains the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). These feelings are often referred to as burnout – a term we might be most familiar with in the context of work.

Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

But is all stress bad?

Not necessarily. In life-threatening situations, stress tells us to prepare to fight or flee. As NIMH explains, “your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense and your brain uses more oxygen and increases activity – all functions aimed at survival and in response to stress.”

And, it’s useful when we’re not faced with a dangerous situation, too. Research from as long ago as 1908 – the Yerkes-Dodson Law – suggests that there’s an ‘optimal’ intersection between stress and performance.

And, although too much can lead to burnout, this optimal point could be particularly useful in our working lives. As this McKinsey & Company article explains, understanding and identifying our own stress can help us manage it effectively and improve performance.

So how do we manage stress?

Failing to manage stress properly, however, can lead to health conditions like the ones described above.

As this chart from the McKinsey piece shows, periods of stress should be followed by a calmer period of recovery and rest.

We need to take time to rest after periods of peak stress.Image: McKinsey & Company

The WHO released a guide last year – Doing What Matters in Times of Stress: An Illustrated Guide – which looked at some strategies for dealing with stress. The tips include ways to ground yourself and how to identify the problem and causes of your stress.

Spotting the causes of stress.Image: WHO

The NHS website also offers advice for dealing with stress and burnout. It includes splitting up big tasks, planning ahead and talking to someone. The NIMH website also offers suggestions, including getting regular exercise and learning to recognize the signs of your body’s response to stress – including difficulty sleeping or increased alcohol intake.

And managing or reducing your stress can have unexpected outcomes too, with a recent study even suggesting that it could turn grey hair back to its original colour.

Joe Myers, Writer, Formative Content

This article was first published in World Economic Forum