When people talk about stress, it’s often in conjunction with negative emotions, as well as negative health consequences (and rightly so — more on that below). 

However, contrary to popular belief, not all stress is bad. In fact, certain types of stress can be beneficial for your health!

In the words of Elissa Epel, PhD, a stress researcher and Oura medical advisor:

“Stress can be tough to cope with sometimes, but we’d be a lot worse off without it. Stress prepares our mind and body for what we need to do, giving us a surge of energy and clarity, and the mental and physical resources we need to meet a challenge.”

Below, get to know “bad” and “good” stress, and how you can better manage the effects of both kinds on your health. 

LEARN MORE: Track, Understand, and Manage Your Stress With Oura

Bad Stress: Acute or Chronic

Stress can be acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term). While acute stress is typically an immediate response to challenge or threat, chronic stress persists over a long period of time and can have more serious health consequences. 

Oura App Home View: Stress Feature Evening Summary
Oura’s Daytime Stress feature shows effects of stressful moments during the course of a day.

Acute Stress 

Acute stress is typically a response to an immediate threat or challenge and tends to resolve once the situation is addressed. Examples include: 

  • Preparing for a big job interview or public speaking event
  • Engaging in a difficult discussion at work
  • Studying for an important exam
  • Getting stuck in a heavy traffic jam
  • Fighting with a loved one
  • Going into a medical procedure
  • Living through a natural disaster 

Your body’s physiological response to these stressors can lead to an increased resting heart rate, lower heart rate variability, higher respiratory rate, and a rise in stress hormones. 

In some cases, this is your body looking out for your safety! Acute stress triggers your fight-or-flight response (or sympathetic nervous system), which can be adaptive and even life-saving in certain situations — for example, jumping out of the way to avoid a fast-approaching car when you’re walking down the street. 

READ MORE: How Stress Works: The Mind-Body Connection

Chronic Stress 

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is the unwelcome guest who overstays their visit. The causes of chronic stress can vary, but can include: 

  • Losing a job
  • Financial worries 
  • Divorce 
  • Moving to a new place
  • Serious, long-term illness
  • Political or social strife
  • Childhood trauma or other life events   

When your sympathetic nervous system stays elevated over a long period of time, serious consequences on your health, both mental and physical, can occur. 

Chronic stress is linked to a litany of health conditions, such as heart disease, obesity and metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and arthritis. Your immune system can also become compromised, making you more susceptible to illness and infections. It can also lead to other mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, as well as a higher risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. 

RELATED: How Stress Affects Your Sleep

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How to Manage Bad Stress

There’s no magic pill to wipe away stress. But, recent research has introduced concepts and strategies that can help people approach stressors in a more positive way. Here’s how.

1. Adjust your mindset. 

In a 2017 study, researchers set out to explore whether someone’s response to stress can be altered by changing their mindset about stress. They found that a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset, as opposed to a “stress-is-debilitating” mindset, produced better responses to a stressful situation. Beneficial effects included increases in anabolic (or “growth”) hormones as well as a more positive mood and greater cognitive flexibility. 

You can also work on cultivating a “growth mindset,” a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD. People with a growth mindset believe that their abilities and intelligence can be developed, rather than believing they are fixed. They view challenges as opportunities for growth and see setbacks as valuable learning experiences, and tend to embrace challenges, rather than avoid them at all costs. 

LEARN MORE: Build Resilience to Stress With a Growth Mindset

2. Celebrate the effort, rather than the outcome. 

When you’re approaching a tough project at work, relationship issue, or other stressful situation, studies suggest that viewing the effort — rather than the ultimate outcome — as the best signifier of success can combat the stress of the work.

In other words, instead of viewing stress and effort as crippling and hard, embrace effort as a rewarding act in itself.

3. Pick up a new hobby.

It takes practice to be good at something, which may be off-putting. However, the process of learning leads to growth through neuroplasticity. This is the remarkable ability of your brain to adapt, change, and rewire itself in response to experiences and learning. It’s how you learn new skills, recover from injuries, and adapt to challenges.

New hobbies, such as learning a new language or a new instrument, can instill confidence in your ability to take on new challenges.

4. Cultivate new lifestyle habits. 

While certain types of stress are unavoidable, it’s key to work on cultivating stress management techniques that can carry you through. Below are some science-backed strategies to help you manage stress. 

  • Practice breathwork
  • Meditate
  • Exercise
  • Connect with loved ones 
  • Spent time in nature
  • Get high-quality sleep

READ MORE: 9 Simple Ways to Lower Stress

Good Stress: Hormetic Stress  

Woman holding dog and groceries wearing Oura Ring

Now for the good news: Certain types of stress, known as hormetic stress, can benefit your body and mind. Hormetic stress involves exposure to low or moderate levels of stressors that can improve and enhance your health and resilience in the long run. 

Examples of hormetic stress can include exercise, intermittent fasting, exposure to cold or heat, and even small challenges like a crossword puzzle or mind game. These stressors trigger adaptive responses in the body, such as improved cardiovascular fitness, increased antioxidant defenses, and enhanced cellular repair mechanisms.

Plus, some fun and relaxing activities can also be perceived as stressful by your body — think: playing a game of pickleball, a dinner party with friends, or taking a hot yoga class. 

How to Harness the Power of Hormetic Stress 

1. Sweat it out. 

Exercise is a prime example of hormetic stress. When you hit the gym or go for a run, your body experiences a temporary increase in stress hormones like cortisol. This short-term stress triggers positive adaptations, including muscle growth, improved cardiovascular health, and enhanced mood. 

2. Take a cold plunge. 

Cold exposure, such as taking cold showers or ice baths, is another form of hormetic stress. When your body is exposed to cold temperatures, it activates various physiological responses to keep you warm. These responses not only increase your tolerance to cold but can also boost your immune system, increase energy expenditure, and improve your mood. 

3. Hit the sauna. 

Deliberate heat exposure in a sauna can provide a host of health benefits, including improved circulation, stronger immune system, better heart health, and even pain management. Research has also shown that saunas decrease cortisol, also known as the stress hormone.

RELATED: Sauna & Sleep: A Winning Combo?

4. Experiment with intermittent fasting.

Intermittent fasting is a dietary practice that involves cycling between periods of eating and fasting. It places a mild stress on your metabolism and can lead to benefits like improved insulin sensitivity, weight management, and even longevity. 

Note that intermittent fasting may not be right for everyone. Particularly, people with menstrual cycles will want to check with a healthcare provider before engaging in intermittent fasting. Hormonal fluctuations, particularly during the menstrual cycle, can impact how they respond to fasting and may feel uncomfortable or may even be dangerous.

5. Challenge your brain. 

Completing a crossword puzzle or other similar “brain game” presents a cognitive challenge that engages your brain. This mild mental challenge is a form of hormetic stress because it’s a stressor that is not overwhelming but is sufficient to stimulate mental adaptation. Just as physical exercise can lead to improved physical fitness, engaging in mentally stimulating activities can improve cognitive function over time.

Track Your Stress With Oura 

With Oura’s Daytime Stress feature, members can see the effects of stressful moments during the course of the day, as reflected in their biometric data. By providing more insights into your daily stress responses, you can learn what affects you and how to balance stressful moments with moments to relax and recover. 

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