why even “bad stress” can be good

Stress can be simplistically differentiated in terms of “good” and “bad” stress, depending on the emotional outcome of the stress and stressor. Good stress might allow for greater focus, motivation, and stimulation, such as the stress associated with working on an interesting project at work. This stress could be imposed by a boss, team members, or even self-imposed.

Sticking with this example, bad stress can be horrific. A bad boss or toxic atmosphere at work might cause anxiety and fear about a project. The focus one encounters in this case is on finishing the work with a short-term mindset and on keeping one’s job. This outcome is especially pernicious in the context of work involving extensive thought, such as software development, wherein being in a state of manufactured fear might lead to software being produced more quickly, but being of poorer quality, a fact that might manifest itself later on.

But even the kind of negative stress that causes dysphoria might be good in some respects and circumstances. We might focus on the source of the stress and disregard other more quotidian stressors, meaning the largest stressor might take precedence and diminish other mundane stressors rather than simply accumulating. This dysphoria might then give us greater capacity to put things in perspective more effectively. If we’re stressed about a possible health issue that threatens our very existence, then a work-related stressor might be trivial in comparison, giving us greater capacity to deal with normal problems at work rather than succumbing to them.

All of this depends on the nature of the stress and our individual reaction to it. Some people become more resilient in the face of stress, others crumble. Since not all stress will invariably be of the “good” variety, it’s helpful to cultivate and engage coping mechanisms that strengthen us over time rather than weaken us.

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