Stress has a reputation for being bad no matter what, but it can actually be a good thing under the right circumstances. Good stress can motivate you and make you grow stronger or perform better on a task when it comes in small doses, but how can you tell the difference between good stress and bad stress?

What’s the Difference Between Good Stress and Bad Stress?

In general, good stress is short-term and pushes you to accomplish greater things. In these situations, you tend to have a lot of control over the outcome and the stress can motivate you. Bad stress can be short-term or long-term. Bad stress is often accompanied by feelings of helplessness because you don’t have a lot of control over what’s happening and you may begin to feel compressed or trapped.

Good Stress Motivates You

Good stress, also called eustress, can propel you forward and help you achieve more goals, ultimately leading to more happiness, success, or fulfillment. These are generally relatively short bouts of stress (acute stress) and provide motivation to get something done or overcome an obstacle. Even though you’re excited about something, you can still feel stressed out about it. Situations or events that could contribute to eustress:

  • A deadline
  • A test
  • Giving a speech

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Brief bouts of stress have even been shown to enhance learning and brain function. This short-term stress isn’t around long enough to do much damage to the body and engages our natural, beneficial fight-or-flight response that we have for survival.

A deadline, for example, can be a source of good stress if it helps you focus and perform well on a project, provided you have time to relax and recover once it’s over. However, if you feel you’re always scrambling to meet a stream of deadlines regardless of how you try to prepare, you may find yourself exhausted, your performance from day to day could become weaker, and you may not have adequate time to recover. That type of situation causes bad, ongoing stress.

Bad Stress Hinders Progress and Could Cause Health Issues

Ongoing, or chronic, stress can slow you down and inhibit you from doing the things you need to do. This type of stress, negative stress, is detrimental because you never really get a chance to recover from the effects of fight-or-flight—you’re constantly in a threatened state. Your body and performance suffer, so that fight-or-flight response can give you a beneficial edge or even save your life in the short-term is lost.

Your immune, reproductive, excretory, and digestive systems are unable to return to normal while a threat is perceived, and all those things you’ve probably always associated with stress—heart disease, trouble focusing, irritability, memory loss, depression, weight gain, and more—really begin to become a risk. Whether the stress started out as good or bad, if it doesn’t go away, you’ll begin to suffer over time.

Situations that could contribute to bad or chronic stress:

  • Relationship trouble
  • Ongoing high demands at work with little to no reprieve
  • Loss of a family member or friend

How to Keep the Bad Stress from Overwhelming You

It’d be nice to say that you should just eliminate the stressors that don’t serve you from your life and be done with them. That’s just not realistic. If you tried to do that, you might end up with no job, no house, no friends or family, no car, no food, and no real way of taking care of yourself.

There are ways to manage your stress and transform it into something much easier to cope with, though. You can regain your energy and feel more at peace without any drastic changes in your external life (though if you feel you need to make some changes there, go for it!):

  • Accept what you have to accept (like traffic) and change what you can control. Don’t obsess over the things your stress can’t move you to change. Mental anguish and rapid breathing still won’t make those lanes of traffic move any faster. You can turn on your favorite music while you wait or make phone calls to let people know you were unexpectedly caught in horrible traffic and are running late. Zen Habits has tips for learning to go with the flow.
  • Here’s a classic one—remind yourself to breathe. Sometimes when we’re stressed, we forget to breathe or we take little shallow breaths that don’t help release that stress and tension. Consciously take a few deep breaths in and slowly let them back out again.
  • Help others. A study in the American Journal of Public Health found that those who had gone through stressful events and then went on to help others had a reduced risk of stress-related mortality than those who didn’t report helping others very much. Check out Kindness Girl for some inspiring random acts of kindness you can try.
  • Begin a daily meditation practice. Stressful situations will roll off your back more often, and if something does get to you, the effects won’t last as long. Meditation is fantastic for maintenance because it can be quick and you can do it anytime (we recommend at least meditating first thing in the morning because it helps set a calm tone for the day and allows you to move through each day with authenticity).
  • Movement helps. Yoga, a walk in nature, or whatever makes you feel amazing when you’re done will help you release some of that stressful energy.

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  • Removing yourself from a situation once you realize it’s stressing you out can keep it from escalating into something you’ll find difficult to manage. Even if you just go for a quick walk around the building before returning to whatever it was, you’ll be able to calm yourself, gain perspective, and return refreshed.

Using and Managing Stress

Now that you know how you can tell a difference between good stress and bad stress, you can work to harness it so that it serves your authentic self and manage it when necessary to protect your body, mind, and spirit from harm. How do you normally cope with stressful situations?