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

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Key Takeaways

  • Research shows that the U.S. population is one of the most stressed in the world.
  • Eustress—a good kind of temporary stress—can be healthy and motivating when it comes to promoting alertness and cognitive function.
  • Stress becomes problematic when it never or rarely subsides, and it can lead to physical symptoms such as tension headaches and chronic pain.

Stress is an inevitable part of life, but it’s not always negative.

It’s challenging to pinpoint concrete causes of good or bad stress because one person’s trigger for good stress is another person’s trigger for bad stress, according to Russ Morfitt, PhD, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the mental health platform Learn to Live.

Two people can experience the exact same event—such as a new project with a tight deadline—but one of them might experience it as an opportunity to take on an interesting challenge while the other one might automatically predict that they’ll fail.

Still, there are some stressors that are objectively negative, such as the loss of a loved one or serious financial troubles.

While the degree of the particular stressors can play a role, it is often the frequency or consistency of stressful events—rather than the stressors themselves—that determine whether the stress is good or bad, according to Morra Aarons-Mele, a mental health author who hosts the podcast The Anxious Achiever.

“Stress is an external pressure we feel when there are expectations placed on us, like meeting a work deadline or finishing a paper in school,” Aarons-Mele told Verywell. “For me, the deciding line between good and bad stress is the duration or length of time you feel stressed.”

Americans Are Very Stressed

The U.S. population is one of the most stressed in the world, according to the American Institute of Stress. They say that the stress level experienced by Americans is 20% higher than the global average, with 55% reporting feeling stressed during the day and 94% of workers feeling stressed at work.

When Is Stress Actually Good for You?

According to Aarons-Mele, good stress can help activate our body and brain and give us energy to complete the task at hand. Ideally, when the task is complete or the problem is solved, the stress goes away, and our nervous system returns to a parasympathetic—or calm—state.

One study from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that acute, intermittent stress can actually improve levels of alertness as well as behavioral and cognitive performance.

Another study from psychologists at the University of Rochester found that it’s possible to reframe our understanding of stress and consciously use it as a tool to improve cognitive performance and reduce anxiety.

Stress that is both healthy and beneficial is called eustress. A gentle nudge in this temporary form of stress can propel people to take action and become more depression-resistant, according to Morfitt.

“In recent years, we have learned that the single most important strategy for depression is to get going—accomplishing things, helping others, doing things that are fun—even when I don’t feel like it,” Morfitt said.

Russ Morfitt, PhD

When we perceive a lot of threat in one area of life, we are often tempted to ignore other important areas to conserve our resources. As a result, we stop making deposits into the important ‘relationship bank.’

— Russ Morfitt, PhD

How Do You Know When You’re Too Stressed?

Stress becomes a problem when it never subsides, according to Aarons-Mele. This may be triggered by consistent external stressors, or it can turn into anxiety—which is not necessarily driven by a specific, external cause but rather an emotion that keeps one worried.

Anxiety can manifest into a feeling of always being “on,” a racing heart, shaking hands, and an inability to settle, she said. It might feel like your brain is firing on a loop of to-do lists and what-ifs.

“When we’re under chronic stress, anxiety builds and we get stuck in a loop of feeling always under pressure, always worried,” she said. “If you feel constantly under pressure and worried, your stress is causing anxiety.”

Chronic stress puts strain on the body and can produce negative physical side effects, according to Morfitt. This might include tension headaches, new or worsened chronic pain, or digestive symptoms such as nausea, constipation, and diarrhea.

This kind of stress might also lead to decreased productivity at work as a result of procrastination, distraction, or overanalysis, he said, and you may find yourself getting into conflict with others more often, too.

When your thoughts are consumed by risk analysis, you are more likely to view conversations as interruptions and input from others as too much to process, he said. So you might become irritable, rushed, and impatient with others.

“When we perceive a lot of threat in one area of life, we are often tempted to ignore other important areas to conserve our resources,” Morfitt said. “As a result, we stop making deposits into the important ‘relationship bank.’ Plus, with high negative stress, libido is often reduced while stress-driven irritability can create unnecessary interpersonal problems.”

How Can You Balance Good and Bad Stress?

If you believe you’re experiencing chronic stress, Aarons-Mele said it’s important to listen to what your body is telling you and seek help.

“Therapy is very helpful here, and so is exercise, breathing exercises, and giving your brain something fun and interesting to do,” she said.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one option when it comes to seeking professional help, and it can help you handle stress better by teaching you how to reframe your thoughts and manage stress differently, Morfitt said.

“If we think that we are unlikely to succeed, that our resources will be overtaxed, or that failure, however unlikely, will be catastrophic, we experience problematic stress,” he said.

“But if instead we think that we will likely have a good outcome, we will experience important benefits by pursuing the challenge, and will be able to bounce back after a setback if it occurs, we will likely have healthy stress.”

What This Means For You

If you feel a little bit of stress every now and then, but easily return to a calm state after not too long, you’re likely experiencing good stress. But if you find yourself stressed most or all of the time, and it’s impacting your health or your relationships, you are likely experiencing chronic, negative stress. Therapy or counseling can help you learn to manage daily stress.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kirby ED, Muroy SE, Sun WG, et al. Acute stress enhances adult rat hippocampal neurogenesis and activation of newborn neurons via secreted astrocytic FGF2. Elife. 2013;2:e00362. doi:10.7554/eLife.00362

  2. Jamieson JP, Black AE, Pelaia LE, Gravelding H, Gordils J, Reis HT. Reappraising stress arousal improves affective, neuroendocrine, and academic performance outcomes in community college classrooms. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2022;151(1):197-212. doi:10.1037/xge0000893

By Mira Miller
Mira Miller is a freelance writer specializing in mental health, women's health, and culture.