We all talk about stress as if it were a poison. But researchers have long known that some stress can be good.
In a new book called "The Upside of Stress," Kelly McGonigal, a California psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, argues that there's one key difference between helpful and harmful stress: mind-set.
If we think that we're going to blow the big presentation or the new job, the kind of stress we feel will be negative — and bad for our health. If we view those things as challenges and the butterflies as our body's way of revving us up to take them on, we'll see benefits instead, she argues.
We need to get over this faulty perception, she said, that "it is possible to somehow have a stress-free, happy life — and we are failures for not having achieved that."
Stress such as seeing a loved one in pain can also trigger empathy, she said, allowing us to be better at supporting our family and friends.
"To experience the things we really love in our lives, we have to put ourselves in circumstances that also cause stress," McGonigal said.
Research by Jeremy Jamieson supports much of what McGonigal says. Jamieson, who recently completed a postdoc at Harvard and is now at the University of Rochester, has found that stress can enhance our performance. In a 2013 paper written when he worked in the psychology lab of Matthew Nock at Harvard,
Jamieson concluded that reframing anxiety as a surmountable hurdle can improve attention, counter the negative biological effects of stress, and boost performance.
"Your own perceptions matter quite a bit for biological function," he said.
Psychologist Robert Epstein cautions against taking this positive view too far. A huge body of evidence shows that stress is bad for the body and the mind, said Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, Calif., who offers a stress competency test at www.mystressmanagementskills.com.
Stress, he said, makes it hard to think clearly, so it can impair performance; new ideas tend to come when the body and mind are quiet — not when they're stressed.
From an evolutionary perspective, our survival depended on using the stress response for what it was intended: getting out of a dangerous situation fast.
But, Epstein said, while sitting on a lounge chair in his Southern California yard, "The best life is one with little stress."