If you're like most people, you associate stress with negative situations. For instance, if you get stuck in traffic or if you are running late for an important meeting, you are likely to feel stressed, on edge, and maybe even overwhelmed. But while adverse events might cause your blood to boil, positive or highly anticipated events can feel stressful as well.
What qualifies as a "good stressor" or a "bad stressor" can vary from person to person depending on their own preferences and perspectives. But psychologists do recognize that there are "good" and "bad" types of stress that can impact your day-to-day life. You can evaluate these examples of stressors to help you identify both good and bad stress when it happens. Knowing what is going on with your emotions may help you to manage them better.
How Good and Bad Stressors Affect Performance
The way that stress operates can be envisioned on a bell curve. A bell curve is a type of graph that looks like an upside down bell, with two low ends on each side and a peak in the middle. The bell curve associated with stress is based on Yerkes-Dodson law, a core principle in psychology that has been used for over 100 years to show how stress affects performance.
On one side of the bell curve, the low end represents when someone experiences little to no stress. In these instances, a person might be unproductive and unmotivated because they do not have enough pressure to help them pursue their goals. The line of the bell curve is low because performance is anticipated to be low.
On the other side of the bell curve, the low end represents when a person experiences high levels of stress. High stress can be debilitating and also cause a person to be unproductive or unmotivated because the demands being placed on them are too high. Again, the line of the bell curve is low because performance is anticipated to be low.
The sweet spot for performance lies directly in the middle of the stress curve, where the line is highest. This represents when there is just enough stress present to help a person feel motivated to achieve whatever they are striving for. In these instances, the goal is within reach if a person applies themselves and puts their best efforts forward. This can be thought of as good or motivational stress that helps people operate at their most productive level.
Good and Bad Stressors: Examples
Some stressors might feel more motivating than others, depending on how you perceive them and value them. The motivational aspect of stress and the performance that results from the stress is what separates the good stressors from the bad stressors. Consider these examples of stressors to understand the concept better.
Good Stressor Examples
Good stress, also called short-term stress, acts as a motivation factor. For example, you might find that you study harder when a test is approaching or put in a few extra hours on a home improvement project when your deadline is in sight. For this reason, short-term stress has been linked to some positive outcomes.
According to a 2018 study from the Journal of Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, activation of the short-term stress response can enhance a person's mental and physical performance when confronted with a challenge. In addition, the journal notes that this type of stress is also associated with improved cardiovascular and immune function.
Some enjoyable aspects or events in your life might cause you a bit of stress for one reason or another. Although these events might be challenging or demanding, they can also be extremely rewarding. Some examples of good stressors include:
- Getting married: It's not easy to plan a wedding. There are invitations to send, reservations to make, and a budget to follow. It's a major life change that usually requires attention to detail and emotional support. For all of these reasons, weddings can be stressful, even if the event itself is highly anticipated.
- Attending a job interview: Many people feel excited at the thought of starting a new career and pinning down a job interview. However, the idea of changing careers, starting with a new company, or even preparing for a job interview can cause anyone's stress levels to rise -even if it's a great opportunity.
- Starting college: It may not come as a surprise, but starting college can be stressful. Some people might find themselves in new areas, farther away from their families than they've ever been. In addition, people must also face rigorous academic challenges while they make friends and explore opportunities. This can make anyone feel anxious, even if they are excited to be there.
- Having a child: Bringing a child into the world can elevate anyone's stress levels. It's a challenge and a commitment that can be both exciting and nerve-wracking. It might also make someone question whether they're really ready.
- Making a financial investment: Purchasing a big-ticket item (such as a home or a car) can be both wonderful and daunting. People may be worried about rearranging their budget to accommodate their new purchase or be anxious that they might miss a payment.
There are several activities and life events that could be added to this list depending on the person. For example, making a large purchase might cause one person to feel both excited and anxious, while another person might not feel the burden of financial stress. What makes something a good stressor is that a person associates something positive with the challenging event. This can be anything from finding the right birthday present to taking your driver's license exam.
Bad Stressor Examples
One function of stress is that it is the body's natural fight-or-flight response. It is meant to keep us safe from potential threats. However, when the stress response is triggered over long periods of time and becomes chronic, it can have a negative impact on the body.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) chronic stress has been linked to digestive disorders, sleep struggles, and headaches. In addition, the NIH notes that prolonged stress can worsen asthma symptoms and has been connected to mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Bad stressors are those that ruin your day, or your week (or even your year) and that often appear to have no upside once you endure them. Some examples of bad stressors include:
- Losing your job: This can be stressful for many reasons. People may worry about how they will support their families, maintain their housing, and pay bills. This stress can become prolonged as a person takes steps to find other employment.
- Death of a loved one: The death of a loved one, particularly someone close, like a spouse, can be devastating. In fact, according to research, it's the most stressful life event a person can experience.
- A car accident: Whether it's a small fender bender, or something bigger, car accidents can be stressful. They can cause you physical harm, add unexpected bills to your finances, and also make you nervous about getting behind the wheel in the future.
- A natural disaster: Natural disasters can cause destruction that can take a community years to overcome. They can separate families, destroy homes, and cause people to lose everything. Even if you are not directly impacted by the disaster, simply being in a community that has experienced a disaster can be stressful.
- Illness: Being sick is not only unpleasant, but it can also be stressful. People might worry about having to miss work or apply for sick time that they might not have approved. In addition, more serious illnesses can cause a person to be stressed about medical expenses and their future.
A bad stressor can be any event that causes unwanted stress in a way that decreases performance and increases anxiety. Instead of offering a challenge that helps you rise to your full potential, bad stressors can be overwhelming and feel like major setbacks in your life.
When you experience stress, it can be helpful to evaluate whether or not the stress is positive or negative. By evaluating and understanding the stressor examples above you can help yourself to stay motivated during good stress events and cut yourself some slack during the bad stress events. No matter what kind of stressor you are facing, you can always turn to loved ones for support, reach out to a mental health professional, or rely on coping strategies to help you through.