All Stress Isn’t Bad - Here’s the Difference Between Good and Bad Stress


Two female friends experiencing stress on a roller coaster

Most conversations around stress are about how harmful it is, but did you know that there's such a thing as "good" stress and it can actually be beneficial? Here's how to tell the difference between good and bad stress.

Key takeaways:

  • Stress is a normal response to the demands on our lives and time. Everyone experiences it.

  • Not all stress is bad. There are two types – good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress).

  • Eustress can help you push yourself to meet goals and deadlines, and experience achievements.

  • Eustress is acute, short-term stress.

  • Bad stress is typically associated with long-term, chronic stress.

  • Bad stress can lead to physical and mental health issues.

  • Having stress management skills is vital.

  • Therapy may help you learn how to better manage stress.

Everyone experiences stress. It’s a normal response to the many demands on our lives and time. What many people don’t know, however, is that not all stress is bad. Good stress, or eustress, can help you push yourself to meet goals or make achievements.

When stress becomes chronic, overwhelming, or long-term, it can become distress or “bad stress” – both mentally and physically. Our bodies might interpret high levels of stress as a life-threatening situation, even if we’re physically safe. They’ll activate our “fight or flight” response to protect us.

When the “fight or flight” response is chronically activated, it can lead to anxiety, depression, sleep problems, substance use, and even medical issues such as difficulty conceiving, cardiovascular disease, immune system illnesses, gastrointestinal problems, and more. Again, stress does not have to be bad, though. Here’s how to tell the difference between good stress and bad stress.

What does each one feel like?

Good stress can feel like excitement. You might experience a surge of hormones and a quickened pulse, but you won’t feel fearful or as if your life is in danger. Examples of this kind of stress are the butterflies you feel in your stomach on a first date, the pulse-pounding excitement you experience on a roller coaster, or your nerves before a big game or job interview.

Bad stress feels differently in your body. It can leave you feeling jittery, anxious, confused, and exhausted. It can even make it hard to concentrate and lead to decreased performance.

Acute stress versus chronic stress


Bad stress, or distress, can be either short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress doesn’t have a long-term impact on your body the way chronic stress does if you’re able to find a way to manage it quickly. Short-term or acute stress may even have protective or beneficial effects, according to newer research.


Chronic stress, though, is associated with multiple negative health effects, including:

  • Weight gain

  • High blood pressure

  • Pain

  • Headaches

Chronic stress has been associated with other physical and mental health challenges as well. Learning how to manage bad stress before it becomes chronic is the key to avoiding health problems due to it.

Common sources of stress


While everyone has a different threshold for burdens, there are many common stressors. Some of the most common in life are:

  • Money

  • Relationships

  • Physical health issues

  • Mental health challenges

  • Work

  • Racial inequities

  • Loss/grief

Stress from one or more of these areas can compound, and over time, may become unmanageable.


Things to try to reduce bad stress


Stress isn’t so much about what’s happening, but how you’re reacting to it and how you’re managing it. It can become problematic when it causes a bad quality of life. Having non-damaging coping skills is important. Here are some healthy outlets to deal with bad stress.

  • Cut back and eliminate stressors where you can: Remember that “no” is a complete sentence. Learn to manage your time more effectively and avoid unnecessary tasks and people/places that frustrate you.

  • Focus on what’s in your control: Recognizing that you can’t control the behaviors of others is very empowering. Instead, focus on what you can control – such as your own behaviors, and focus your energy there.

  • Use relaxation techniques: Techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and yoga are evidence-based and proven to help you relax.

  • Use positive thinking: Thoughts become behavior, and positive thinking can help elicit helpful, positive behaviors. Practice gratitude and positive thinking, which may take practice at first.

  • Allow yourself to be supported: Getting support from family and friends can be helpful. Allow your family and friends to be there for you during your times of need.

  • Stay fit and healthy: Many studies have shown the importance of diet and exercise when it comes to managing stress. A healthy mind and body are important, and they definitely play a key role in mood regulation and reducing the effects stress can have on the mind/body.

  • Use a strengths-focused approach: What resources/skills do you have available to you to rise to the challenges at hand?

  • Get quality sleep: If you aren’t getting enough sleep, your body is more likely to be stressed out. Make sure you’re getting restorative rest each night.

By taking care of both your mind and your body, you set yourself up for success and ensure your body is well-rested and nourished, ready to handle the next challenge it encounters. Ultimately, therapy can be an invaluable resource for you if you need assistance identifying your stressors and expanding your coping skills.