Is There Good Stress?

by Michael Hoffman

I just read another article where the author, backed up by degrees in psychology, explained that stress can be a good thing and that we shouldn’t — well, get stressed by stress.

I think that the main message of transforming stress into positive energy is excellent.  


But here’s what I don’t get: If I take salt water and transform it into drinking water, the salt water doesn’t become “good” water; it’s been purified into “good” water and therefore no longer salt water. So if I take a stressful situation and channel it so that I’m not experiencing stress, then the stress is not “good” stress. It has been neutralized, and therefore the stress is diminished or ceases to exist.  No stress, not good stress.  Good for me, and perhaps even for my physiognomy, but I did the work, not the stress. 

I get that small amounts of stress can be stimulating and even make you happy (read the book Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), but good stress? Nah. Stress inherently wears things and people down. Basically, people who believe in good stress come from the “What doesn’t kill you, helps you.” school, and they have misunderstood that message. One reason might be that it’s so engrained in the Puritan/Western culture that they need to find something redeeming in self-flagellation instead of understanding that we need to be more mindful of ourselves — quite opposite approaches. 

Does stress help you grow as so many researchers would have you believe? No, not in of itself. Learning how to cope well with stress does – and there is a big difference. One is a focus on allowing stress into your life and not worrying about it so much because you can learn to deal with it (Don’t worry the pain of self-flagellation will go away), the other is a focus on dealing with “normal” stress appropriately (mindfulness).  I quantify “normal” here because abnormal or excessive stress is simply bad no matter how well equipped you are. 

When I conducted symphony orchestras, the stress before landing the first downbeat in a concert was very intense (to the point where I wondered why I put myself through it before each concert), but once the music started and I was completely absorbed, most of that stress (certainly not all) dissipated. It didn’t become, nor was it ever, good.  Nor was it bad. Just plain vanilla stress.  It’s not a moral thing, it’s physics and chemistry thing. 

Since the type of stress we are talking about here is psychological (as opposed to physical), it is just a matter of mind control. The source is of secondary importance; thus calling it good or bad is placing focus on the wrong thing. It’s how you deal with it that’s important, not its potential to cause you harm or good. 

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