I am often happiest when I have a little too much on my plate. Call me an overachiever, but being busy feels like "good stress" that keeps me motivated, and I have a tendency to try to pile it on. But there's some mysterious tipping point where good stress starts to feel not that good anymore, that’s when I go from ambitiously active to totally burnt out within hours. Psychologists and doctors have told us for decades that “good stress,” or eustress, is healthy for us, but what’s the right amount? Psychologists explain how to tell when good stress turns into bad stress and how we can use that knowledge to plan our post-pandemic lives.
Think of good stress as a kind of a physiological gift. “It’s related to the natural feelings of fear that occur when we move out of our comfort zone,” says Mona Eshaiker, a California-based psychotherapist who often helps her underrepresented clients prevent burnout. In other words, it helps us deal with doing things that we’re afraid of. Physiologically, that means that our body starts pumping out hormones that get us moving — like adrenaline — our hearts beat faster, and we feel more focused. Eustress is the feeling you have before you do something new or fun that scares you a little — like bungee jumping or asking someone out, says Eshaiker.
But good stress isn’t just something we feel during big events. It’s part of our everyday lives. “Good stress happens when we engage in activities that are related to our personal goals so we feel exhilarated to push through because it means we are moving us closer to our goals,” says Eshaiker. In other words, you may feel eustress when you do something as simple as tackling a long-procrastinated to-do that’s in line with your personal values. It’s like your body’s way of telling you that you’re on the right track. When you start to get really excited about doing something and you stay excited while you’re doing it, that’s eustress keeping you motivated.
Eustress is supposed to feel good, and it does. In fact, some experts think that eustress is that ephemeral flow state we’re all constantly striving for, that feeling of being “in the zone,” explains Diante Fuchs, a clinical psychologist in New Zealand. This means we are experiencing our current circumstances as challenging enough to stretch us and grow us, and we believe we have what it takes to meet the challenge, Fuchs says. This kind of stress feels exciting so that we stay motivated to tackle problems and reach new levels of achievement; eustress, ultimately, might fuel us to stay up an extra few hours to work on something challenging or to learn a new skill.
You can tell the difference between “good stress” and “bad stress” because, well, bad stress doesn’t feel good at all; it can paralyze you emotionally instead of motivating you “This sort of stress feels draining and pressured,” explains Fuchs. “ It comes with negative self-beliefs and fatigue.” It definitely feels different from good stress and it doesn’t excite you to do what needs to be done, says Fuchs. You might find yourself irritable or uncharacteristically tearful during times of bad stress. Not only will you not enjoy those feelings, but it’s also not good for you. Prolonged stress is so incredibly toxic to our bodies and minds we definitely do not want to be in that place for too long, says Eshaiker.
“Moments of good stress are temporary and usually only occur at the onset of the task at hand,” says Eshaiker. Basically, when the job is done — whether that’s a cool piece of art you’re making or a rollercoaster ride — so is the good stress. You can easily tell that the moment has passed because you’ll lose energy, motivation, and focus. Trying to push past that point is one of the things that can turn good stress into bad stress.
“Bad stress often occurs with prolonged good stress or when the challenge feels like it exceeds our ability,” says Fuchs. We may still feel pushed to perform somehow, but we don’t feel like we have what it takes anymore, she explains. This comedown from good stress is physiologically natural and it can also help keep you on the right track. “When we experience prolonged stress, or ‘bad’ stress, that usually signals something is off,” says Eshaiker. “Maybe it’s signaling that our goals have changed, maybe we are engaging in activities that are not actually meaningful to us, or maybe we are pushing past a boundary.” The move from feeling motivated to feeling overwhelmed, then, may not feel good, but it is a good way to figure out that something needs to shift.
‘Bad stress’ isn’t always about stretching ourselves too thin — sometimes it can come from not stretching ourselves enough.
Both Eshaiker and Fuchs agree that feeling bad stress usually indicates that what we need is rest. “We need moments of restful breaks in order to have perspective and to reflect,” says Eshaiker. “Humans are intuitive beings and we can easily access our needs, wants, desires, goals and fears quite clearly if we give ourselves the gift of pause.”
Even if it feels like taking a break is impossible because the task is urgent, you will be better able to meet challenges if you do. Fuchs recommends taking a break to reassess what you’re working on or your schedule. That way you can figure out what needs to be put in place to provide you with the resources — time, money, information, support — to help you meet the expectation or challenge, she says.
But how can you possibly know in advance whether something will be exhilarating or exhausting? The reality is that you may not always be able to know whether taking on new challenges or a lot of extra work will create good stress or bad stress, and it’s really important to know that even though “bad” stress doesn’t feel good, Fuchs says you don’t want to avoid it entirely. “Sometimes ‘bad stress’ isn’t about stretching ourselves too thin — sometimes it can come from not stretching ourselves enough,” she explains. Plus, as Eshaiker points out, that feeling may help you pinpoint your goals by telling you when what you’re doing isn’t aligned with them.
The real strategy to maintain the right balance of stressors in your life is being realistic about what you choose to take on and making sure you take time for breaks. “Try to be honest with yourself in terms of the challenges you take on or the expectations you have of yourself,” says Fuchs. It feels good to stretch ourselves a little and feel like we are progressing and growing, she explains. But make sure that you feel you have what it takes to meet these expectations — the time, the financial resources or the mental capacity. You can’t, after all, spend energy that you don’t actually have. So, as you plan your Hot Vax Summer and ensuing financially solvent fall, make sure you leave room for a lot of breaks.