Tech & Work

Can stress be good?

There are two kinds of stress -- bad and good. Here is the difference and the benefits that can be had from good stress.

Remember when the medical community starting letting us know that there were two kinds of cholesterol -- good (HDL) and bad (LDL)? Medical experts believe that although HDL is itself a cholesterol, it carries the bad cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it's passed from the body.

In my opinion, you can categorize stress in the same way. There is the kind of stress you experience when things keep going wrong or the same issues keep cropping up that you have to fix. This is like being a hamster on a wheel. There's not payoff for the stress if the same issue keeps coming up.

Good stress

But what is good stress? Jane Weaver, health editor for msnbc, says:

Moderate amounts of stress -- the kind of short-term buzz we get from a sudden burst of hormones -- can help people perform tasks more efficiently and can improve memory. Good stress is the type of emotional challenge where a person feels in control and provides some sense of accomplishment. It can improve heart function and make the body resistant to infection, experts say. Far from being something we need to eliminate from our lives, good stress stimulates us.

In fact, some people can become addicted to that short-term buzz (thus the term "adrenaline junkie"), but that's a whole other blog.

I like a certain amount of stress at work, particularly in the form of deadlines. Without it, I feel like an EEG of my brain at work would reveal a flat line. I'm the type of person whose mind tends to wander if not jolted every now and then. If there is a payoff, or feeling of achievement, after a period of stress for me, that is rewarding and feels pretty darn good.

Ms. Weaver points out some other believed benefits of stress:

  • Short-term boosts of it may strengthen the immune system and protect against some diseases of aging like Alzheimer's.
  • People who experience moderate levels of stress before surgery have a better recovery than those with high or low levels.
  • A recent study suggested that stress could help prevent breast cancer because it suppresses the production of estrogen.
  • And earlier this year, research out of Johns Hopkins concludes that mild stress in a pregnant woman "may be a necessary condition for optimal development" in a child.

You also have to keep in mind how you handle stress individually. Some people are so low-key that stress doesn't even register, while others can feel completely stressed out over the smallest thing. It helps, though, to know how to distinguish between good and bad forms of stress.


Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.


I often think of it in terms of productivity. If I have no stress I just meander along and don't seem to accomplish much. If I have too much stress it frazzles my brain and I use up too many resources simply coping with the stress, and productivity goes down. If I have a 'good' amount of stress I feel hyped and driven and can really get in and get a lot done. Unfortunately peak performance is achieved at stress levels very close to the tipping point...


I???m in the unusual situation of being a freelance computer consultant, tech, and teacher, as well as having researched and taught stress management for over twenty-five years, and it???s all come to overlap. Stress among techies of all stripes has become frightening and I???m concerned that we may be watching a generational watershed, a tipping point with unspeakable medical and social consequences. Here???s hoping (fingers and toes crossed) that I???m wrong, along with everybody I turn to for the science and medicine of stress. It???s possible to speak of good and bad stress, and this has some merits, but the good and bad are more matters of individual people, specific situations, and the differences between the initial phase of the stress response (and the nature and benefits of that phase, some of which you???ve covered in your listing of benefits) versus what happens if the response continues and becomes exacerbated. You could say that although lower levels of stress can be and often are beneficial, that???s only true for the initial phase of the response, and may only apply to incidental rather than repeated or ongoing stress. Things become far more complicated, and are far more likely to shift from good to bad, as the situation progresses. What feels good, is perceived as good, may well be so, but may also be on its way to doing harm, maybe terrible harm. For anyone sufficiently interested in stress to be willing to learn about it, I can recommend ???Why Zebras Don???t??? Get Ulcers??? by Robert Sapolsky. He???s one of those science writers who has managed to write a book so beautifully well documented as to serve as an excellent textbook, while being entertaining and fascinating all the way. Good luck, everybody.


But you don't give a very detailed example of a "good stress" situation, other than your own personal deadline stress. Help us out, here?

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