Could stress be good for you?

Categories: Making Time, The Juggle


I realized something the other day that took me by surprise: I do some of my best work when I’m stressed out of my gourd.

My stress levels are always pretty high. That’s not a complaint, it’s just a statement of fact. I don’t think it’s just because I’m juggling work and family — thought that undoubtedly contributes to it. I’m pretty sure it’s just the way I am.

But some days — OK, many days — my stress levels are higher than others. And those days, I’ve found, are the days when I become uber-productive.

When I was in college, my roommates used to say that I had two settings: “Overdrive” and “off.” I was juggling two jobs, sometimes three, plus a full course load and a spot on the fencing team; I was so used to pulling all nighters that I didn’t know what to do with myself if 3 a.m. rolled around and I didn’t have more work to do.

Nowadays, when 3 a.m. rolls around I’d prefer to be in bed, but I’m just as likely to be in my toddler’s room, cuddling him in the big red chair (this boy thinks sleep is for sissies, and is bound and determined to save me from becoming one, it seems). Or jotting down a story idea that’s keeping me awake. Or lying in bed, listening to my husband breathe and wondering why I can’t just fall asleep already.

I’m not superwoman — I have more than my fair share of unmotivated moments. And I am a champion procrastinator. (I’m a journalist! We work best on deadline!) But when my stress levels are highest, my productivity skyrockets.

According to the experts at, there are four types of stress: eustress, distress, under-stress, and over-stress. Eustress is that rush you get when you’re doing something exciting, the feeling of motivation and inspiration that carries you through a fascinating but complicated or difficult project.

That’s not the type of stress I’m talking about.

I’m definitely not suffering from under-stress, a lack of motivation that leads to a decrease in creativity. And while distress is familiar, I think what helps me power through my to-do list is actually over-stress. “This is when people don’t have the time to sit back and think creatively and most of the focus is only on dealing with immediate issues,” the folks at say.

But I say that being forced to focus only on the immediate issues can be a good thing, from time to time. It can be constructive. Striking item after item off your to-do list can be exhilarating — liberating, almost. You don’t want to be operating in crisis mode 24/7, but every once in a while, having to go into overdrive and multitask like a madwoman in order to get it all done — and actually get it all done? That’s when stress becomes positive, for me.

What do you think? Do you believe in positive stress?

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9 comments so far...

  • I completely agree, actually. I find when I am stressed, in the good productive I don’t have a lot of time and lots to do mode, I get a ton done and feel great afterwards.

    The stress that really gets me is the kind where there isn’t anything immediate I can do about it.

    Nataly  |  September 15th, 2008 at 10:45 am

  • From time to time, absolutely. As a matter of fact, I think I artificially create this type of stress for myself sometimes by procrastinating. When I am up against a deadline and I know I HAVE TO GET IT DONE, that’s when I do some of my best work!

    Robyn  |  September 15th, 2008 at 10:48 am

  • ooh yes, i LOVE those days! and that is why i am a cronic list maker. if i dont have that list, it seems to never get done! i need it staring me in the face - stressing me out! then the items get done, and that is the BEST feeling ever. who needs a runners high when you can just overstress and cross off your to do list? haha!

    Kate  |  September 15th, 2008 at 12:41 pm

  • DITTO!! Lylah, I am so with you - I definitely do my best work under pressure, which is probably why I am also a procrastinator. As a matter of fact, an old friend and I have an expression we like: If you want something done, give it to a busy person! If I have too much time on my hands, I start to get lazy, and even more unproductive - which in turn ALSO stresses me out. So yes, the to-do lists are abound in my home and at my office, or else nothing would get done.

    Glenda  |  September 15th, 2008 at 3:21 pm

  • I’ve come to a similar realization about procrastination. That sometimes when I’m procrastinating, I’m actually my most productive. When I’m avoiding one project I usually do so by tackling another whole-heartedly.

    Ellen Hart  |  September 15th, 2008 at 3:52 pm

  • I can totally identify with this - pressure can really light a fire under your butt!

    Sarah  |  September 16th, 2008 at 10:11 am

  • Agreed - stress forces me to focus hard and be super-productive. And that productiveness and focus gives me a tired yet euphoric tiredness that’s kind of a blast.

    Here’s my explanation: perhaps it’s less about stress and more about brain chemistry. Apparently, scans have shown that the brain’s activity is actually quieter when someone is focused really, really hard on a difficult task. Somehow being “in the zone” mentally-speaking is good for us. I think that’s such an intriguing notion!

    Diane  |  September 16th, 2008 at 9:16 pm

  • I definitely work best when I’m under a very tight deadline. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) I’ve passed this trait on to my oldest daugher, who pulled her first school all-nighter in 8th grade. :-)

    BlapherMJ  |  September 17th, 2008 at 10:20 am

  • Sooner or later, everyone experiences some level of stress. And yes, stress can be useful when you need to work hard or react quickly – such as winning a competition or meeting a deadline. But at what cost? When one is stressed, the body responds as if it were in danger. It releases hormones that speed up the heart and boost the energy level. This process is called the fight-or-flight response; it’s a clear reference to the notion that, when in danger, one either stays and fights back or runs away. Danger however, just like stress, is no ideal condition to live in for a human being (or any other living creature for that matter), so the logical conclusion is that a prolonged state of stress will eventually turn against you.
    Years of scientific studies have proved that stress is not just one of the causes, but rather one of the main causes of physical illnesses such as headaches, stomach pain, eating disorders, or trouble sleeping, to name a few. Stress can weaken the immune system, and if you already have a health problem, it can make it worse. Stress has to be fought rather than embraced as a tool to work more and faster, for consequences can and are guaranteed to follow later in life. So yes, stress can be good for your career, a race or perhaps a survival situation, but most definitely not for you.

    Stefania  |  September 20th, 2008 at 8:31 pm