How to stress productively

Many of us experience stress in our lives- that overwhelming feeling of having more to deal with than we can handle. However, there is a way to ‘stress better’ and even use stress to our advantage.

According to theories about motivation and drive, some stress (which can be understood as our physical and mental reaction to being under pressure) can be positive. This kind of stress motivates us towards the goals we care about. When we care enough about that presentation at work or completing that project before the deadline to actively plan and take action towards it, we’ve hit that sweet spot where a certain level of arousal enables us to perform well. This is what is called optimum stress. Once the task is completed, not only do we experience a surge of achievement and satisfaction, our body rewards itself by returning to its normal rhythm. This allows time to rest, recover and repair itself before the next challenge.

However, once stress levels rise beyond optimum levels, our performance starts falling again. We experience this as overwhelming panic or anxiety that impedes our ability to do well such as stomach or headaches, chest tightness, or tension in our bodies and other “classic” symptoms of stress. Experiencing this overload over long periods of time puts us at risk of chronic stress where our minds and bodies are constantly over-aroused. Imagine chronic stress as the equivalent of driving a car without taking a break over long distances- the car eventually overheats and runs out of gas.

Most of the time, we are able to stay within the optimal range of stress which is manageable and even pushes us towards productivity. In this way, one could argue that stress itself is neither good or bad but rather about how we monitor and channel it in the right way.

Learning about our body’s reactions to stress and how it usually reacts when it is in danger of being pushed overboard is a skill we can learn to help prevent burnout. Knowing the right kinds of coping skills that work for you will also ensure you remain in just the right range of optimal stress.