Healthy Stress Versus Unhealthy Stress

Published February 17, 2015

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You might notice that sometimes feeling stressed helps you to feel motivated and focused on the task at hand, but at other times it causes you to feel overwhelmed, tense and unable to concentrate on anything. That’s because there are two major types of stress. One is healthy stress, which can be beneficial and motivating. The other is unhealthy stress and can negatively impact on your health and behavior. – Here’s how to recognize the difference.

Healthy stress

Stress, in small doses, has many advantages. For example, acute stress can help boost performance and help you rise to meet challenges. Moderate stress can help you learn and remember new information effectively, and periods of brief stress can help to benefit your immune system.1 A complete lack of stress on the other hand, may lead to boredom and reduce your motivation.

Stress is also a vital warning system that produces the ‘fight or flight’ response. When faced with a genuine threat, such as being chased by a dangerous animal or when you’re trying to avoid colliding with another car, your body will flood with hormones that create a variety of reactions such as increasing blood pressure, boosting energy and preparing you to either ‘fight’ or ‘flee’ from the problem. These kinds of responses are helpful in these types of situations.2

Unfortunately our bodies can react in the same way when confronted with day to day challenges such as meeting deadlines, money matters or juggling work and family life. They don’t differentiate between physical and psychological threats. When the body’s natural alarm system is constantly running it can have negative consequences on your health and becomes unhealthy stress.

Unhealthy stress

There comes a point when stress stops being helpful and starts to impact on your health, mood, productivity, relationships and quality of life. What causes ‘unhealthy stress’ largely depends on your perception of it, as something that is stressful to you may not faze someone else. If stress is greater than your ability to cope and becomes chronic or overwhelming, it can affect your mind and body in various ways and lead to a whole host of signs, symptoms and health problems. These include:3

Mind Body Behaviour
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Feeling moody or tearful
  • Feeling overwhelmed and out of control
  • Lacking confidence or self-esteem
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Headaches and muscle tension
  • Sleeping difficulties
  • Upset stomach or diarrhoea
  • Fatigue
  • Blood pressure problems
  • Low immune function
  • Change in libido
  • Emotional eating (undereating or overeating)
  • Relationship problems
  • Relying on alcohol or smoking or other substance abuse
  • Avoiding people
  • Angry outbursts

Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ stress as some people tend to thrive on the excitement and challenge of a high-stress lifestyle. If you’re experiencing some of the above warning signs however, it may be your body’s way of letting you know that you’re struggling with too much. With stress overload, it’s important to change the stressful situation where possible, take care of yourself and allow plenty of time for rest and relaxation.

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